Technologizer

Another Reason for Dell’s Decline: The Shrinking Importance of PC Customization

A world that doesn't need built-to-order PCs doesn't necessarily need Dell.

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Darren S. Carroll / Getty Images

Michael Dell in 1998, with a classic custom-built Dell desktop PC.

I’m still thinking about yesterday’s news that Dell is going private, a move which is in part a response to the company’s long decline as a powerhouse of the PC business.

Once upon a time, it was the industry’s most reliable provider of good Windows computers, sold at attractive prices with solid warranties and capable tech support. When I worked at PC World magazine, and friends and acquaintances would ask for PC buying advice, I had a safe, one-sentence recommendation: “Buy the best Dell you can afford.”

Buying a Dell made sense in part because you were, in fact, buying it from Dell. You told the company what you wanted, and it swiftly assembled a machine to your specifications and shipped it off to you. The whole notion of direct buying was so compelling that it spawned an industry, with everyone from Ambra to Zeos doing PCs the Dell way — though rarely with anything like Dell’s competence and success.

Looking back, customization wasn’t as much about different people having different needs as is was about different people having different budgets. In 1991, Dell charged $3,499 for a 33MHz 486 desktop PC with a 200MB hard drive and 4MB of RAM. You could save $500 by cutting back to an 80MB drive and 2MB of RAM. Or another $1,300 over that by living with a 20MHz 386SX proccesor, a 40MB hard drive and 1MB of memory. But nobody would have ever chosen the skimpy 20MHz 386SX over the loaded 33MHz 486 if price wasn’t a factor.

For awhile, buying a custom PC direct from the manufacturer was a radically smarter decision than getting an off-the-shelf computer from a local store. Retail PCs offered less choice, and cost more for what you got.

Then things changed. The price differences started to shrink, in part because most companies ended up outsourcing manufacturing to Asian subcontractors. And as computers got cheaper, obsessing over components became less important. I just checked out a current Dell desktop, the Inspiron 660: It offers only one processor and a fixed amount of RAM, and if you decide to splurge on a 1TB hard drive, you’ll pay only $50 more than you would for 500GB.

Today, even bargain-priced ones have sufficient processing power, memory and storage space for most tasks. I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter which computer you buy: There’s a heck of a lot of difference between a $399 boat-anchor Windows laptop and a top-of-the-line Retina MacBook Pro. But the big decisions involve companies, product lines and industrial-design issues, not clockspeeds, capacities and configurations.

Dell never quite adjusted to that new reality. Its website, which was once a delightfully efficient place to buy a computer, became a confusing maze, stocked with product lines which seemed awfully similar even though they were allegedly aimed at totally different types of customers. It also devoted too much energy to hawking printers and other add-ons as part of a PC purchase.

The company still made perfectly respectable Windows PCs — and does today — but the shopping experience became dispiriting rather than empowering.

In the 1990s, I took my own advice and bought the best custom-configured Dells I could afford. Then I bought a couple of HPs from big-box retailers, making sure that they had more RAM and disk space than I needed at the time. And today, when I need to buy a computer, I usually get one shipped overnight from Amazon. One which wasn’t built just for me, but is far better than any custom-assembled computer I ever owned.

I’m happy that things worked out that way — but this week, at least, I also miss the Dell I once found so indispensable.

14 comments
forextor
forextor

Oh I remember those good old time.. I ALWAYS bought DELL. For me, for my wife, even when my friends asked my advice, I quickly go to DELL and customize a PC for them.


Imagine my shock when recently I went to DELL website trying to buy a PC. Those customizations are gone!.. Basically I can only sort by price and maybe hard disk size and that's all! I could not even decide how much RAM I wanted! This is not DELL I know!


For weeks I kept going back to their website still trying to find the customization button... now I have accepted the fact that DELL has stopped becoming DELL. 


Frustrated, I went to a local retailer website, choose the best PC I can afford (ignoring the brand), and click Buy!. So far I have bought two from that retailer.. and I am about to buy another one soon.


Bye bye DELL.. 


rcgaard
rcgaard

this article is great,and hits the ball with the bat when he states things changed, a long time ago..its evil how greedy stockholders can change a company,and i see it all the time...they are like snakes in the grass, ....they bleed a company until they are no longer wanted. i too can remember when you could order your choice of cpu, ati or nvidia video card, etc....it was like a diy builder, but dell does  it for you...and tech support was u.s. based, and great..the forum was top notch...then someone at dell decided to do away with all that, and that is when dell started  their   downward slide, at least on the retail side..today  the cases are cheap plastic  things,  not much in configuration,..usally forced to use what video dell wants to offer....dell even forces you to use windows 8,,,hp now  will give you some options for windows 7...i no llonger buy dells....its a great company that has flipped 180 degrees in my book

Fictionwriter7
Fictionwriter7

Dell is done at my house.  No more.  They should answer their tech support line, "Dell Hell how may I assist you?"  Because this company does not support their products, even when they know it is a software issue they have unless you pay them over and over and over.  Again, I'm done with Dell computers, and there will never be another in my house.

captainhook
captainhook

I recently tried to buy a PC from DELL using their online customization tools to create a high-end machine to my spec. In the end I simply gave up out of frustration because it's just so ridiculously confusing. Despite phone calls and chat sessions to work out exactly what I was getting with the spec I simply lost the will to carry on.

antonmarq
antonmarq

All Dell has to do is wait it out. It will not be long before tablets rule the business place, and then all hell will break loose. Software companies are quickly mobilizing Cloud, which is another nice way to say, "Rent and pay." Miss one payment, lose your business. 

meme
meme

My opinion is that Dell lost its way along time ago. Once known as a company for good customer service, quality components and cost they turned into a company that out sourced almost everything and was more interested in their bottom line than the customers needs.  Thus many people n the technical arena use the term Dell h*ll when working with the company. While Dell is not the only one who produces the product over seas the design and quality of their product seems not to be that of HP, Asus, Toshiba.. This is especially true of Dells technical support (try calling it). In my opinion the best laptop manufacturer seem to be HP if the product is purchased via COSTCO you get U.S. technical support parts and labor for 2 years and verbal lifetime technical support.

JasmineGibbs15
JasmineGibbs15

I just got paid $6784 working off my laptop this month. And if you think that's cool, my divorced friend has twin toddlers and made over $9k her first month. It feels so good making so much money when other people have to work for so much less. This is what I do, Great60.comTAKE A LOOK


mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Sorry, but Dell is not going to be a PC powerhouse again for many years (if ever again).

In the year 2013, the true powerhouses are Apple and Lenovo.  Nearly all of my friends and co-workers use (Apple) Macbooks, and the younger generation almost exclusively uses Apple products.  I know about the younger generation, because I was a teacher though 2012.

Captiosus
Captiosus

That picture brought back memories.

You see, in 1998, I worked at Gateway Computers (Virginia "Bahamas" Plant) where I worked until late 2002 when they started scaling back jobs. I started as a call floor technician and ended as building IT support but back then I remember our fierce rivalry with Dell. We used to have banners that would be hung on around the call floor and manufacturing departments to try to motivate employees to beat Dell in customer service and quality assurance. Back then, Gateway went head to head with Dell in the "customize your PC your way" department.

Look at Gateway now. Dell may have had bumps along the road but they've definitely weathered the changes in the PC market better than most!

supamonkey77
supamonkey77

One important factor you forgot to mention is the quality of their products. Over the years the Dell name has gone down as one of the more unreliable laptop and other components makers. I have personal experience with it as there are currently 2 Dell laptops in our household, one personal (wife's) and   one given by the office(a top of the line $1500 thing) and both are rubbish compared to my, now, 4 year old Toshiba Satellite.

Luscus
Luscus

@meme  I Agree completely, I remember in the early 2000 I purchased 2 Dell Pentium 4 for $200 (and they threw in a palm pilot to boot) every other computer was in the $500 mark. Those PC are in Chile and they are still in use, and have not needed any replacement parts. By 2005 I purchased a Top of the line 10" laptop for $1900 , after 12 month the screen inverted died and they wanted $280 to repair, bought the part for $14 and it took me 15 minutes to replace, 3 month latter the speakers stopped working (they were unprotected and the wore out by opening and closing the monitor.) 2 month latter the HD conked out. After that I gave up on Dell and like you started recommending Compaq my Children still use my 2006 compaq laptop.

harrymccracken
harrymccracken moderator

@CaptiosusGateway was the other great success story of the direct PC market; I'm sorry that it no longer exists in its original form, too.

therantguy
therantguy

@supamonkey77 Agreed. Here is my classic Dell experience in point form


$3200 TOP of the line XPS Gaming laptop purchased 2007 w/ 3 year in home super warranty

Day 1 - Casing is bent, internal components mis-aligned, sounds like an airplane - System replaced

Day 10 - New system doesn't work properly - System replaced

Day 200-250 - Monitor replaced, heat sink replaced, graphics card replaced, fans replaced, monitor replaced (again)

Day 251 - Dell gives up - System replaced

Day 400 - New system dies, is out of warranty, I buy an Asus.


Now...that is stunning...there is simply no way Dell didn't do anything other than lose money on me...they replaced the system three times, sent a tech to my home six times to replace components etc...etc...and needless to say I didn't even consider Dell when buying a new PC and given I am the one all my friends go to for advice, recommend against them at every chance I get.

Captiosus
Captiosus

@harrymccracken  I really miss that old job. I even enjoyed the year and a half I put in on the call floor. I'm very disappointed the "modern" Gateway as there's no customization or direct-to-consumer sales, just B2B for consumer resale. Since they're part of the Acer Group now, most Gateway products are really nothing more than Acer systems with a different branding sticker.