Last week, Dell announced that it would return to private ownership, with the company being split between its founder, Michael Dell, and a private-equity firm. By going private, Dell will be free from an obligation to publicly disclose its profits and revenues, undoubtedly a smart move for a company bleeding money and market share. The primary reason for Dell’s recent downturn has been the advent of Android and iOS smartphones and tablets, which have been cannibalizing PC sales. Ironically, this is the same company whose founder, back in 1997, said that if he were Steve Jobs, he would shut down Apple and give money to its shareholders. But there’s a secondary reason for Dell’s slump: Its computers were, and are, designed badly. Not only are they consistently ugly, but their ugliness has made them unreliable, loud, hot, slow and prone to breakage.
Dell, of course, was successful early on because its products were priced competitively. But beyond cheap computers, the company never figured out what people wanted, so they tried — and often failed — to please consumers in every possible way (except with a higher quality product). Its website once had a section called Della, which proclaimed that pink Mini 10 netbooks are a better way for women to look up recipes, watch cooking videos and count calories. The company has also offered perplexing “artistic graphical designs” as ways for people to customize these same netbooks, which mostly looked like somebody vomited Microsoft Office Clip Art.
The most egregious offense can be found on Alienware gaming laptop computers. Here, there are flashy LED lights not just on the top of the computer, but also on the sides, the speakers and on the keyboard. The trackpad was backlit with Dell’s logo! Don’t you want to be constantly reminded that you’re using a Dell computer? All this flashy branding isn’t obnoxious; your friends have Macs with the Apple logo, right? You own a REAL computer, not some fruit.
Indeed, throughout its entire tenure, the company has had a strange design resentment-obsession with Apple. Dell consistently came out with knock-offs so clearly (and poorly) mimicking Apple’s designs that I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was secretly owned by Apple to drive people towards Macs. At the company’s sanest, the Inspiron E1405 looked like a Fisher-Price MacBook Pro, with a plastic silver body (prone to flaking) with white plastic trim (prone to discoloration). The overall weight was 5.3 pounds, but the lackadaisical industrial design made holding the laptop at certain places alternately feel like holding a hollow block or a plutonium bomb. The first generation MacBook Pro, which was heavier, actually felt solid. Maybe the Inspiron’s weight issue could be explained by the malignant protrusions on the computer’s underside, with random holes and slots without purpose (turns out it’s because the casing was ‘recycled’ from another model). The MacBook Pro was smooth.
At Dell’s craziest, you have the Adamo XPS, whose ridiculousness cannot be fully appreciated until you have seen it. Instead of sitting flat on the desk and flipping the screen up, the keyboard flipped down at an angle, the entire computer’s weight resting on a questionably built hinge. Typing on this computer was a nail-biting experience; every keystroke was a mix of saying grace for the computer not-breaking and a prayer that the next will not. The lid closure was not magnetic but a weird “touch-strip,” which you had to slide your finger across to open. It sometimes didn’t work, meaning you didn’t even have physical access to your computer. Dell tried so hard to show it could design something better than Apple that it went nuts.
Dell has wised up recently and produced more logical designs, but they have mostly been lifted from not just Apple, but other manufacturers like Lenovo, HP and Toshiba. They still have a love for plastic that is only outmatched by the girl who eats it on My Strange Addiction. The font they use on keyboards is questionable. Even with flashy new materials, the build quality is still horrific (the XPS 12’s carbon fiber warps and squeaks). In addition, they now suffer from a Microsoft problem: Windows 8 is epically confusing and unusable.
Dell’s demise is not a just a schadenfreude trip, but a hard lesson for other tech companies that design means as much to consumers than a simple price point and the fastest processors. This is a lesson that many competitors in the smartphone and tablet markets have taken to heart. If it’s solidly built, good-looking, stable and usable, there will always be somebody that buys your product. Otherwise, you will be forced to eat your words and retreat with your tail between your legs.
Disclosure: The author owns a Toshiba laptop.