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Many have probably been asking the question for months. Activist investors such as Carl Icahn at times appeared to have the upper hand against Michael Dell. It seemed plausible at points that the founder might be ousted from his own company, or that pieces of the company might be sold off.
And even after it became clear Michael Dell would prevail, questions still remained. Observers widely interpreted that Dell didn't want the burden of Wall Street's quarterly scrutiny; after all, it's hard to invest in new enterprise services when shareholders are howling about PC profits every three months. But now that Dell has rid himself of investor pressure, the question still remains: What will he do with his new flexibility, and how will it help customers?
[ Are you faced with making different cloud services work together? Read Herding Clouds: IT Faces Its Hybrid Future. ]
Dell North America President PH Ferrand spoke with InformationWeek about Dell's strategy as a privately held company. Here are eight takeaways from the conversation.
1. Dell can make investments as a private company that it couldn't make as a public company.
Ferrand affirmed one of the buyout process's dominant narratives: that from Dell's perspective, Wall Street was more trouble than it was worth. Ferrand said going private will give the company more flexibility. It "might not have been obvious to investors" when the company needed to double down on investments, he said.
2. Dell sees no reason to make a smartphone but will continue to make PCs.
"Very few players make money [selling smartphones]," Ferrand said. "We don't feel we have to be in the space."
That's consistent with what Michael Dell told InformationWeek last year at Dell World. But many of the device manufacturers with which Dell competes have started positioning smartphones as a gateway to consumer sales and BYOD business. Microsoft's purchase of Nokia's device business is a notable example. Execs at HP, another company struggling to adjust to the mobile world, have repeatedly indicated that a smartphone is coming.
Why is Dell still resisting the trend? "The IT market is a $3 trillion business and we are about 2% of that," Ferrand said. "We don't need to have phones to get to 3% or 4%."
Even so, Ferrand said Dell remains committed to PCs and intends to become a leader in the commercial tablet space. He said he can't rule out a Dell smartphone eventually but predicted that in the meantime, people will soon stop differentiating between tablets and computers; instead, they'll simply talk broadly about mobile devices. If this revolution in user behavior happens, Dell hopes its Venue 11 Pro tablet will be one of the devices that gets it started; a "three-in-one" device, it attaches to a keyboard to become a laptop and docks to an external monitor to become a desktop replacement.
3. Dell will focus on the hybrid cloud.
Ferrand highlighted hybrid cloud services as a market on which Dell will focus, and which Dell sees as ripe for growth. "We want to dominate hybrid," he said, explaining that customers want a company that will allow them to be flexible with their data. Customers want to move applications between private and public clouds as they see fit, and they want security from outages and data leaks, he said. He cited some of the investments Dell has already made to fulfill these needs, such as its acquisition of Gale, a company that makes cloud automation tools.
But he said direct relationships with customers would be one of Dell's defining traits as it builds its cloud business. With competitors such as HP, Microsoft, IBM and others occupying the same space, Dell hopes it can stand out not only with its products but also by serving as a "trusted advisor" for its customers.
4. Dell wants to enable IT to manage BYOD and fragmented workplaces.
Ferrand said device choice has become a smaller part of Dell's conversations with customers. The reason? Dell's cloud, virtualization and device management products allow companies to employ applications to whomever needs them, regardless of what kind device the person is using.
"Connecting devices" will be one of Dell's core competencies as a private company, Ferrand said, and it will involve a variety of products from the company's existing portfolio, from Wyse technologies for thin clients, to KACE products for management and deployment, to Credent technologies for added security. Device management tools and virtual desktop products are fairly common, but Dell hopes the breadth of its offerings can help it to stand out. This "one-stop shop" mentality plays in the "trusted advisor" persona noted above. Ferrand said the attitude would apply to all Dell's businesses.
5. Dell will invest in next-gen data center technologies and big-data products.
Ferrand also said Dell would continue to focus on next-generation data center products and big-data applications. The company has already achieved some early momentum with its Active System line of converged infrastructure products, as well as its hyperscale servers built around energy-efficient ARM processors. But for both these data centers products and its emerging analytics tools to stand out in the crowded market, Dell will need to continue showing that its software assets are starting to coalesce. The company spent several years acquiring software patents and expertise, but Dell's success will rely on integrating all of the technologies at the right price and pace.
6. Dell will increase its international sales coverage.
U.S. customers currently account for an inordinate amount of Dell's business but the company believes emerging markets will be central to its long-term success. Ferrand said the company will continue to participate heavily with channel partners but will also expand its fleet of direct sales representatives throughout the world.
7. Dell will continue to focus on the middle market.
As its enterprise portfolio has expanded, Dell has tried to carve out a niche by delivering enterprise-class resources to SMBs and mid-market customers. Ferrand said Dell will continue this strategy as a private company partly because the middle market contains the largest group of potential customers. But he said this focus also enables Dell to design more flexible products. It's easier to scale up a mid-market architecture than to affordably repackage one designed for large companies, he said.
8. Dell will execute moves more quickly than in the past.
Ferrand didn't offer any hints regarding big moves Dell might be planning -- such as another major acquisition, or some kind of new product launch. But he said customers can expect Dell to quicken the pace of innovation. As a publicly-traded corporation, the company faced a variety of hurdles in making aggressive moves. But with Michael Dell now securely in the driver's seat, Ferrand said changes will unroll much more quickly.