Michael Dell sees HP confusion as a big opportunity

Dell CEO discusses customer needs, Apple iPad, social media and meeting Steve Jobs

SAN FRANCISCO -- As Hewlett-Packard waffles on whether it will continue to produce computers, the CEO of rival Dell Inc. said HP's customers are losing confidence and looking to other vendors.

Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell, told an audience at the Web 2.0 Summit today that HP's uncertainty is a good thing for Dell and he's working hard to take advantage of that.

"Any uncertainty or confusion that exists is an opportunity," Dell said. "It's a great opportunity for us to describe to our customers, and our potential customers, our commitment to what we do. No question we've seen significant opportunities from what is going on over there [at HP]. Customers think about what is going to happen in a year or two and that erodes their confidence."

In August, HP, the dominant computer maker in the world, said it considering a spinoff of its PC manufacturing business. A little more than a month later, HP's new CEO Meg Whitman caused a stir when she said the company would decide whether to spin off the manufacturing arm by the end of the year.

Dell, which was just dislodged from its position as the second-largest PC maker in the world by Lenovo, is eager to take advantage of any confusion that HP might cause among its enterprise and consumer customers.

"We're completely committed and we're not going to change our mind about that," Dell quipped, taking an obvious jab at HP. "And I'm sure about that, by the way."

The Dell CEO also talked today about changes that he's made to his company.

"We started the company 27-and-a-half years ago and the business in its first 20 or so years did quite well," he said. "It grew to a substantial size and things were growing quite nicely. It had a monolithic business model that really worked, until it didn't work so well."

The problem, he added, was that customers didn't just want a computer. They wanted a partner that understood who they were and what they were doing.

"As we kept making more and more powerful hardware, we'd go to our customers and say we built this and ... they'd say, 'We don't really care about your shiny new server. What do you know about my business? If you know my business and the problems I'm trying to solve, then I'll talk to you. I want to fix my supply chain. I want to redo my manufacturing.' We had to change from a product company to a services and solutions company. That involved a significant shift."

To answer that demand, Dell built a sizable services organization, and today, the company is with customers such as health care providers to help them share data and speed innovation that leads to improvements in patient care.

With the rapid growth of tablet computers in the market, Dell said he wants to help enterprises manage the plethora of devices that they suddenly have to deal with.

"If you think about the client device, whether mobile phone or tablet, it's pretty hard to have a complete end-to-end solution for customers if you don't have the whole thing," he said. "We'll help our customers manage the devices that people are bringing into their enterprise ... We're providing a lot of infrastructure to those companies and helping our customers figure out this explosion of devices."

Who is winning the tablet race? Well, that he said, would have to be Apple.

"If you look at the tablet market, you'd have to say right now it's an iPad market," Dell said. "The Android stuff has not done fantastically well and I think I'm being fair in my estimation. If you ask who the challengers are, it's Android and Microsoft. Microsoft has a pretty good shot with Windows 8, and we're pretty excited about what they're doing."

Social media is also major tool for Dell.

The CEO said it's important to be a company with "big ears," meaning that it is learning and listening. "When the Internet came along, that was like rocket fuel for Dell," he said. "We look at social media and see it as a great opportunity to collaborate and share and scale."

Dell also said he was saddened by the loss of Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs.

"It's been a time of reflection recently," he said. "When I was about 14 years old, I got an Apple II. I took it apart and figured out how the parts worked ... Steve will be missed. He was a friend. I met Steve when I was 16 years old. Steve came to Houston, Texas, to an Apple user group meeting. I was there with my Apple II."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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