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.