Dell’s Quest for Cool

Will Alienware make the tech world’s dullards hip?

Alienware’s Star Wars PC

Before last month, Dell had made only one attempt to look cool in its 22-year history. I don’t need to tell you that the “Dell dude” wasn’t the coolest guy on the planet. Dell’s second attempt to win street cred, its recent acquisition of the hip, gamer-friendly computer manufacturer Alienware, will probably prove more successful. That’s because Dell has accepted the fact that it simply is not cool, and the only way for it to get a cool brand is to buy one.

The company’s hipness deficit has never really affected the bottom line. In fact, Dell owes its success to its dullness. It’s difficult to remember when PCs were not pervasive. But when Dell got its start, personal computers were business machines, purchased and managed in bulk by governments and corporations. In this market dullness was, and remains, a killer feature. A dull machine is cheap, reliable, and predictable.

Most consumers value dullness as much as IT managers do. They are not looking for fashionable tech products; they are looking for deals. In a recent survey of consumer attitudes by Forrester Research, Dell ranked as one of the tech companies with the highest level of trust and the greatest potential to attract new customers. According to analysts at the IT consulting firm IDC, Dell’s 33.1 percent market share made it the No. 1 PC seller in the United States in 2005, while Apple was number four with 3.3 percent. We may ogle the new Apple machines, but for the most part we get Dells, dude.

There is at least one group for which dullness isn’t a virtue: hard-core gamers. For people who spend much of their time in virtual worlds, image is important. Gamers want powerful computers, of course, but they also want stylish systems made by a company that they believe understands them. Dell’s XPS line of machines certainly provides the requisite power. The PC giant’s market clout earns it premium relationships with component-makers like ATI, Intel, and nVidia, often allowing it to be first to market with the hottest technologies. But devoted gamers have still stayed away from Dell. Halo obsessives are not IT managers: They ogle expensive, flashy machines … and they buy expensive, flashy machines. That’s where Alienware comes in.

Alienware, which opened for business in 1996, learned early on that outward appearance is as important as performance. While Dell was making breakthroughs in noise-dampening, Alienware built hulking monsters that sounded like jet fighters. The design elements gradually became more audacious, progressing from colorful, oversized cases with a little silver alien head on the front to entire computers in the shape of an alien head.

I watched this evolution when I edited home-computer reviews for PC World in the first part of this decade. Along with Alienware, I covered other boutique gaming vendors, including Falcon Northwest and VoodooPC. Though they’ve all gotten savvier over the years, Alienware has always been a bit ahead. In an obvious reference to rival Alienware, the CEO of Falcon Northwest once told me that his customers didn’t care about fancy PC cases—they just wanted powerful machines. But shortly thereafter, Falcon Northwest introduced a line of giant aluminum cases with a custom automotive paint finish. Dell’s bells and whistles came even later, and less convincingly. The XPS line, which debuted in 2003, was cutting-edge technically, but Dell’s only design innovation was to house the computers in giant cases that were—shocker!—blue instead of black. By then, Alienware had introduced its extraterrestrial head design.

Dell has tried to become edgier. In 2004, its gaming notebooks featured a not-that-intimidating-looking skull design, and earlier this year it introduced the limited-edition XPS 600 Renegade, a desktop machine covered in painted-on flames. Not bad, but Alienware currently has four paint-color options. The company also offers Star Wars special editions, and machines with liquid-cooled graphics systems (you can choose the color of the coolant).

What’s most remarkable about Alienware’s success is that its computers cost up to twice as much as a comparable Dell and take longer to arrive—an average of about three weeks to assemble and ship vs. about five days for a Dell. Still, gamers don’t think they’re getting a bad deal. Alienware makes its adherents feel special by playing up the handcraftedness of its machines. Each PC comes with a document marked “Classified” that includes a checklist of the components installed, plus the results of individualized performance tests. Dell, of course, pioneered the build-to-order system for computers. But if a mega-company like Dell made a big to-do about how much work went into building your PC, it would look unprofessional. When Alienware tells you how much attention they lavished on your computer, it’s a nice personal touch.

Alienware is not simply a glowing-eyed figurehead. The company has real technical chops and a record of producing high-end equipment. It also understands better than Dell how to cater to demanding, geeky customers. Dell’s upgrade policy is a constant source of annoyance for its more computer-savvy customers. You can add components to your desktop PC, but you must buy the parts from Dell to retain warranty coverage; if you want to upgrade your laptop, a technician must come to your house and do the work. Alienware, in contrast, allows people to add components purchased anywhere. It recognizes that its customers are enthusiasts who can handle upgrades, and it doesn’t penalize them by withholding tech support.

Had Dell introduced a gaming line in the 1990s rather than in 2003, it might have squashed the boutique vendors. But Alienware and its ilk have grown out of their gawky adolescent phase and have developed adult image-making and branding skills. Dell’s purchase of Alienware is an endorsement of how far the boutique vendors have come. In this era of Flickr, Dodgeball, and Skype, purchase is the pinnacle of achievement for many companies.

But it’s telling that Alienware will remain essentially autonomous. Dell will continue to offer its XPS line for mainstream gamers and will give Alienware free rein to devise wild designs for the avant-garde using whatever components it chooses. However, Dell will assume responsibility for logistical aspects, such as securing supplies of components and offering more generous financing packages. These dull, critical things are what Dell does best.