If Apple can go home again, why not Dell?

Looking to Apple's past for a clue to his company's future, Michael Dell knows that reversal of fortune is a common theme in the PC industry's history.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read

An unexpected bump in the head landed yours truly in the emergency ward recently, and when they wheeled me up to the CAT scan, I handed over my cell phone.

"Oh, we don't need that," the attendant told me. "We only take iPhones."

Wow, I thought. Of all places to land a scoop!

"You mean there's something about the device that interferes with the picture process?"

"No," the attendant laughed. "We're just looking for iPhones, not that other stuff."

Just around the same time, Consumer Reports announced the results of its findings that Apple had the best technical support in the computer industry. Talk about the rich getting richer.

These are obviously boom times for Apple. But fortunes are fleeting in the computer business and it wasn't so long ago that Dell was the PC maker with all the sizzle. In fact, in October 1997, Michael Dell was at a Gartner symposium, and he was asked what he would do if he owned Apple (which then was struggling). "I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders," he said. (Dell was responding to a verbal pot shot from Steve Jobs, who was quoted previously saying that Dell makes "un-innovative beige boxes.")

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Jobs wasn't entirely wrong. Dell's bigger problem wasn't that it was unexciting. Rather, the company got sloppy as it grew into the world's biggest PC manufacturer (nowadays, it's No. 2). Jobs had no way of knowing that Dell would fumble its once brilliant advantage over rivals when it came to price and delivery. Up until then, the fact that its machines were, well, boring, wasn't a handicap. In fact, corporate IT types actually prefer boring--as long as it's dependable and backed up by solid service. That was the key because complaints about Dell's once highly regarded online support also mounted. The company's reputation took a high-profile hit after blogger Jeff Jarvis chronicled his tech support woes on his popular personal site.

CNET News.com reporter Erica Ogg has a great take on Dell's customer service today. The company says it's worked hard to repair any lingering problems. Still, you have to wonder after reading the comments in the Talkback section responding to Erica's piece.

Of course, take the anecdotal evidence with a big grain of salt. Still, there are a lot of aggrieved customers who remain furious at the company. They can't all be flamers when you consider that in the same Consumer Reports survey, Dell finished behind Apple both in notebook support and desktop support.

But times change and today's top dog could easily become tomorrow's top dog in a blink of time. Just ask the folks who have worked at Apple or IBM or Compaq or Hewlett-Packard. When he stepped in for his second tour of duty at Apple, Steve Jobs inherited a royal mess. Back then, Michael Dell could dismiss Apple and not give it a second thought. A lot of people felt the same way. Smart product design and better management execution ultimately changed the critics' minds.

Now that he's the company founder returning to a troubled company as CEO, Dell obviously has a very personal stake in getting things right. It's hardly mission impossible. Dell has bounced back from previous stumbles so who knows? With a bit of luck, maybe the next time I get wheeled into to the radiology department, they'll be asking whether I've brought a Dell laptop with me.