- 14 Apr 08, 15:14 GMT
Does Dell care about looks? Not just about the look and feel of its products - once derided as beige boxes by Steve Jobs - but about how it projects itself as a brand?
I ask because I've just returned from a slightly frustrating trip to meet Michael Dell. Now here is a man with a fascinating tale to tell about building a business from his college room that became a management school case-study for its production and direct sales skills. A man who then realised a year or so back that Dell was losing its way, and returned as chief executive to put things back on track.
So when Dell offered us an interview with their founder and second-time CEO, we jumped at the offer. The catch was that he was in Venice, glad-handing European customers, and we could only have 15 minutes.
Now whatever you might have heard about the extravagant budgets at the Beeb, it wasn't a no-brainer that my bosses would give the go-ahead for this trip. But they reckoned this was a great interview to get so we bought a couple of budget airline tickets and a one-day travelcard on the vaporetto and headed across the lagoon to the hotel where Dell was holding its shindig.
Then things began to go wrong. If you're interviewing the man in Venice you want it to look like Venice, right? No. We were shown to a conference room inside the Hilton where Mr Dell was staying. It was a perfectly nice room in a perfectly nice hotel, but it could just as well have been in Virginia, Vauxhall or Valencia as Venice. Looks certainly matter in television, and most companies understand that.
Okay - so maybe the schedule could be squeezed so that we could just pop outside before or after the interview for one shot of Mr D looking out at the glories of Venice? Not a chance, said the PR person,nor could we move to a room with a view over the lagoon.
Desperate to make things look more interesting, I suggested that Mr Dell could have with him an innovative product which would tell a story about where his company was heading - you may remember that Paul Otellini brought a jar of Intel's Atom chips into our recent interview, and Bill Gates was keen to show off his surface computer when we met in Las Vegas.
Good idea, said the PR woman, and a few minutes later came back with a tablet notebook computer. Fine, though the tablet is one innovation which seems to have proved about as popular as the wristwatch computer.
Maybe Michael Dell thinks the same, because five minutes later the PR returned with the message that "Michael thinks it would be a distraction." So no visual aids. Then there was the issue of time.
Now although we had been told it was just a 15 minute slot in Mr Dell's timetable, I have never known that not to stretch to half an hour once you've had time to put a microphone on the interviewee and then get a couple of editing shots afterwards.
What is more, Michael Dell had arrived 10 minutes head of his meticulously planned schedule. But just eight minutes into the interview the PR woman called out "three minutes left" and after 11 minutes I was obliged to stop.
In the short time we had, Mr Dell started with a list of numbers showing how brilliantly his business was performing and how well the new strategy was coming together - but it was only when we moved onto the subject of design that I felt we were getting to the heart of the issue.
Historically, most of Dell's revenue has come from supplying computers to companies, not consumers. The trouble is businesses - which used to lead consumers in adopting new technology - are now the laggards. How many of you now have a better computer with a more advanced operating system at home than at work? I know I do.
And, as Mr Dell conceded, businesses care more about security and reliability than looks. So had he woken up late to the importance of design?
I quoted a story I'd read about an executive who had suggested a few years back that Dell should offer a computer in a range of colours and been batted back by the boss. He was not amused by a tale he said was untrue: "It's a good story... however ill-informed or incorrect it may be." Anyway, nowadays, he insisted you could have his products in any colour you fancied, and they were winning design awards left, right and centre.
But when I asked what new products we could expect next from Dell, the answer was vague in the extreme.
Now it is true that Dell is spending more money and time thinking about the look and feel of its products, and winning some praise for the results. But if Dell really does believe that looks matter, shouldn't its PR department know a bit about making the boss look good on television?
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