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Dell Redux and the end of an era

Gateway's Ted Waitt and Michael Dell, two titans from the heyday of direct PC sales, are going to leave very different legacies.

Last I heard, Ted Waitt was kicking back somewhere in a posh part of Southern California, living the high life that came his way from starting Gateway. I wonder what he thought about the news that his old company no longer would be selling computers directlyto the public.

Former Gateway CEO Ted Waitt CNET News

Along with Dell, Gateway was one of the two companies most responsible for popularizing the idea of buying computers over the phone. But this week's about-face only put a long-expected coda on the final chapter of this story.

Now owned by Acer, Gateway lost its way years ago. Despite frequent course corrections along the way, Gateway couldn't stop the customer exodus. In the end, Acer was able to buy the company last year for a relative song ($710 million.)

Dell CEO Michael Dell CNET News

Hard to believe that at one point in the early 1990s, Gateway and Dell were roughly neck-and-neck. But Waitt, a charismatic operator, never matched Michael Dell as a business organizer. Both CEOs made their share of miscues, but Michael Dell always could tap a deeper bench. As fate would have it, both Waitt and Dell were forced to return as CEO because their chosen successors stumbled.)

Reading through the clips from that time, I came across this observation on Dell's return from Needham analyst Charlie Wolf:

"The return of the prodigal son has many precedents in American business. Steve Jobs returned to a company in shambles in 1997 but has since turned Apple into one of the great growth stories of the decade. Mark Hurd, though not a prodigal son, also took over a company in disarray and turned HP into a formidable competitor in less than two years. At the same time, Ted Waitt, Gateway's founder, was unable to return the company to its former glory when he came back in 2001 after a year's sabbatical."

Amen to that.

More than a year after returning as CEO, though, Dell seems to be settling quite nicely into the new/old role. He's also reportedly contemplating a renewed run at the digital music player business. (Here's more context on that story.) The previous attempt was a failure but I

still can't tell whether Dell Redux is going to turn out to be a success. But he's a survivor. And for old time's sake, it's good to see folks like him still taking center stage.