Update: Dell shareholders have officially voted in favor of allowing Michael Dell to buy back his company, and Dell has said he intends to focus on business and enterprise computing.
It's no secret why Dell's struggling so badly it just took a $2b loan from Microsoft and bought itself back from shareholders to become a private company: after more than a decade of effort, the company never figured out what consumers actually want beyond low prices, or why they might want it.
You might laugh, but it's true — a look back at Dell's biggest attempts to crack the consumer market and compete with Apple over the past 10 years reveals an embarrassing series of missteps, mistakes, and flat-out bad software, culminating in a flurry of poorly-executed mobile devices in 2010 that sealed the company's fate. As the world went mobile, Dell stopped moving. "We're no longer a PC company," said Dell VP Brad Anderson last year. "We're an IT company." We'll see how Dell manages this new chapter of its life in the months ahead — but for now, let's just slide on down Dell's sad little spiral together.
The Inspiron 8600 represents Dell at its peak — and the beginnings of its precipitous fall in the consumer market. The 8600 and its cheaper sibling 8500 were stellar examples of Dell's ability to assemble commodity Windows systems for low prices, and they became almost ubiquitous on college campuses around the country. But they were also cheaply made, prone to failure, and suffered badly from Microsoft's laissez-faire attitude towards viruses and security in Windows XP. These are the Windows laptops that taught people to hate Windows laptops — and sent a lot of people shopping for MacBooks.
After the iPod exploded in popularity, Dell launched the Digital Jukebox, or Dell DJ. At the time, CEO Michael Dell held up the chunky player as evidence of Dell's consumer prowess, telling USA Today that "The whole new ballgame is these worlds (computing and consumer electronics) converging, and that's a world we're comfortable in." But Dell didn't actually know how to make consumer electronics — the DJ was a reworked Creative player with a weird interface, no style, and bad desktop software. It was unceremoniously pulled in 2006.
This thing was supposed to compete with the iPod Shuffle. It did not.
Dell's ham-fisted attempts to market reworked enterprise PCs to consumers came to a tone-deaf pinnacle with Della, a section of Dell's website designed… for the ladies. That basically meant a lot of soft-focus stock photos, "tech tips" that suggested using a PC for "finding recipes" and "counting calories," and plenty of entry points to buy a pink Dell Mini 10 netbook. The ill-fated experiment was met with howls of derision from women — the New York Times quoted marketing expert Andrea Learned saying "Della marketing strategy sounds like it's advertising a purse." In response, Dell updated the Della site to make it "more technical" before pulling the whole thing down just 11 days later.
The Adamo was Dell's attempt to prove that it could design an ultra-thin laptop to compete with Apple's MacBook Air. It couldn't. Although it looks gorgeous in photos, the build quality was suspect, and performance was terrible for a $2,000 machine. "It's hard to say if releasing a computer like this right now is bad timing or just ignorance on Dell's part," wrote our own Joshua Topolsky in his review.
Dell's first smartphone for the US market was a colossal dud. Although it was relatively small and light, it highlighted Dell's inexperience building integrated hardware / software products — it shipped with an outdated version of Android made worse by Dell's slow, bizarre skin. "The Dell Aero is a total disappointment," wrote Philip Berne in his review. "Dell has skinned the interface to the point that the best features have been flayed."
The Inspiron Duo was an attempt to turn a netbook into an iPad competitor with a funky rotating touchscreen and some bad touch software atop Windows 7. It didn’t work — it was chunky, slow, and had terrible battery life. "It not only lacks a decent LCD, but the software and its sluggish performance make it incredibly frustrating to use," wrote Joanna Stern in her review. And while Windows 8 allows the new XPS Duo 12 to make much better use of the same flipping screen concept, Dell still has a long way to go.
Dell followed up its initial Adamo-bomb with the Adamo XPS, which featured a wild off-center hinge — the keyboard flipped down and rested at an angle. If you squint you can see the rough beginnings of today's hybrid tablets, but if you open your eyes all the way what you really see is Dell trying so hard to outdesign Apple that it went completely insane.
Although 5-inch Android phones are now commonplace, Dell's Streak was the first of its kind in 2010 — and far too ahead of the curve. That display might have been giant, but it offered just 800 x 480 pixels of real estate, and ran Android 1.6 with a funky Dell skin that added a numeric keypad to the virtual keyboard and replaced the swipe-down notifications drawer with a bubble that appeared when you pressed a small on-screen button. Chris Ziegler laid it out bluntly in his review: "If Dell wants to play in the hyper-competitive smartphone market over the long term, they're going to need to remember something that they've known in the PC space for many years: they're a hardware manufacturer, not a software firm."
Oh, the Dell Venue Pro. It seemed like the ultimate phone: a 4.1-inch Windows Phone 7 device with a full keyboard hidden away under a slider. Although it was codenamed Lightning when it first leaked out, Dell chose to go with the decidedly less-appealing Venue Pro moniker for launch — and then essentially failed to launch the phone, with false start after false start delaying the phone by months. "Sloppiest phone launch ever?" asked Joshua Topolsky. When we finally did get a review unit, it didn't work.
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