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How the defunct Dell Adamo led to the new XPS 15Z

Dell killed Adamo earlier this year when its take on the luxury laptop didn't resonate with customers. Now it's back with a more moderate take on a more wallet-friendly thin notebook.

At $999 the new Dell XPS 15Z is a bit more budget-friendly than its predecessor, the Adamo.
At $999 the new Dell XPS 15Z is more budget-friendly than its predecessor, the Adamo. Dell

Just more than two years ago, Dell introduced one of its most unlikely products ever. The Adamo laptop was stylish, it was expensive, and it wasn't around that long. The product was killed less than two years after its very splashy debut.

On Tuesday, Dell is set to announce the XPS 15Z, a $999 laptop that is in many ways a descendant of the Adamo. While the XPS 15Z lacks the same daring design and sleek profile, it's much more in line with what people have come to expect from Dell nowadays: some thoughtful style, decent quality, but still very accessible to mainstream consumers.

The 15Z is .97 inches thick, has a 15-inch screen, comes with a 2.9 Ghz or 3.4 Ghz Intel dual-core processor, and has a battery that lasts 8 hours, according to Dell. In terms of power, it far surpasses the Adamo, but at 5.6 pounds it's bulkier and lacks the sleekness of its predecessor.

It's important to note that the XPS 15Z would probably not exist if the Adamo had not come before it. Most of the PC maker's executives involved in the project say that not only did the Adamo change the way many people thought about Dell, it helped shape the way Dell thinks about people, especially the ones who buy its computers.

When it was released two years ago, the to kill one of the company's most unlikely products ever.

Steve Felice, Dell's vice president of consumer operations, and the executive leading that meeting recalled very bluntly why Adamo had to go.

At .97 inches, the XPS 15Z is thicker than its predecessor the 13-inch Adamo, which measured .65 inches at its thinnest point.
At .97 inches, the XPS 15Z is thicker than its predecessor the 13-inch Adamo, which measured .65 inches at its thinnest point. Dell

"The products were all over the map," he said at a meeting last month in a window-less conference room on Dell's Round Rock, Texas campus. "We moved too far away from the tenets that Dell is as a brand."

That was something that started under Motorola's Ron Garriques-who has since departed in yet another shakeup. He was brought in to enact some much-needed change on the consumer side in 2007. The idea at the time was to appeal to a broader range of customers. Over the next few years, Dell would introduce the Studio line in addition to reviving XPS, Inspiron, and the high-end gaming brand Alienware it purchased the prior year.

Flash forward to today, and the company has sincerethought that plan. Last summer, it began shedding brands and honing its marketing message in order to reach just three specific set of customers. Inspiron for families, XPS for consumers who want a stylish computer with good performance, and Alienware, for professionals and gamers. Studio and Adamo didn't make the cut.

Besides the fact that Studio and Adamo overlapped too much, Adamo was too much of a departure for Dell. Supermodels and super expensive computers?

"That's not who Dell is," Felice admitted. "We want to sell mainstream technology."

But there was another problem.

"People loved the design, quality, fit, and finish, but they were frustrated because it's an expensive computer, but it doesn't have the performance I would expect for that price tag," said Ed Boyd, vice president of the experience design group at Dell, whose first project was the Adamo.

A classic problem, he noted, for all ULVs, or ultra-low voltage notebooks. The same too expensive/too underpowered knock was said of the first Apple MacBook Air, which debuted just a year before the Adamo. The Adamo debuted at .65 inches thick, weighing just under 4 pounds, and packed with a 1.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor for a starting price of $1,999.

The original 13-inch Adamo.
The original 13-inch Adamo. Dell

The original MacBook Air, released a year earlier, was similar in many respects and also considered pricey for a computer without an optical drive or more than one USB port. The Air had a 13-inch screen, was slightly thicker at .76 inches, but weighed less at 3 pounds, and with the option for a 1.6GHz or 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, it was more powerful than the Adamo for a lower starting price, $1,799.

Besides Apple's revered marketing machine, the company has long been associated with aesthetically pleasing electronics thanks to its devotion to the works of industrial design demigod Dieter Rams. Dell has not. But thanks to risky projects like the Adamo, the world's second-largest PC maker thinks it can change that perception.

A dramatic turnaround
The fact that a product like that was even made was a breakthrough for Dell, a company in the midst of a dramatic turnaround both financially and in terms of its identity. There were a rough couple of years half a decade ago under former CEO Kevin Rollins that, among other things, allowed rival HP to steal Dell's crown as king of all PC makers in total units shipped. Part of that was due to Dell being blindsided by the personalization craze that swept the PC industry.

Dell has now firmly committed to not allowing that to happen again. And though Adamo ultimately disappeared, it's considered internally as a success. There have been many invaluable ripple effects of the project, including prioritizing aesthetics and doing intense market research.

Adamo "pushed the envelope that enabled the next generation of things to happen" within the consumer business unit at Dell, said Michael Tatelman, vice president of sales and marketing for Dell's consumer business. "We knew (Adamo) would have limited appeal. But for me that was fine. It showed people we were serious about design."

Consumer PC sales only account for about 20 percent of Dell's business, but there's a halo effect of having electronic devices that people want to use in their free time: many times they'll want to use them at work.

Once Dell decided to get serious about design, it brought in Boyd along with several others in 2007. He came to Round Rock from Nike, and his first big project was the Adamo. Like most of the people who worked on the project, he thinks that despite the Adamo getting killed, it was worth the effort.

"It really broke a lot of glass for us at Dell," he said.

The Adamo was "an opportunity to develop a beautifully crafted statement of technology," said Tim Peters, vice president of Dell. "In that sense, it was very well done. But then you have to go out and find a customer for it."

Dell takes a different approach now, using design and research machinery that combs the globe for local trends and asks its customers what kind of technology they want to use. They go into customers' homes and watch how they use technology. By doing that Dell's designers learn how customers prioritize battery life, screen brightness, and in what situations they use a laptop versus a smartphone.

"It's not rocket science, but it is a very data-driven process," Peters said.

Dell now has 14 design offices in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, where the company monitors political and social trends on a micro level. They look for common threads to determine "what's going to be cool two years from now," according to Michael Smith, who oversees this effort as the global director of industrial design and user experience for Dell's consumer business.

It's also virtually the opposite tack taken by the inarguable leader in consumer electronics industrial design, Apple. Many design experts believe data-driven research can only make incremental improvements in industrial design and customer experience. But the really big, revolutionary ideas that resonate with customers come from instinct. At Apple that comes from CEO Steve Jobs and his design guru Jonathan Ive. In other words, they have ideas about what's cool and usable and market-expanding already and don't often ask customers what they think.

While Dell's 15Z may appear slightly boring in comparison to Adamo, it is doing design the way it knows how. This time around it thinks it has the right mix of price and features. Whether Dell will get to be the brand that people associate with forward-thinking design is yet to be seen.

"It's been a journey. These things take time to bake," said Tatelman. "The vision changes, as tech does."