Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 6:10 pm.

Saying Something Nice About Dell

This post was originally published at LinkedIn. You can follow me there for future long- and short-form updates.

Michael Dell will always have the distinction of being the guy giving a forgotten CES keynote at the same time Steve Jobs was unveiling the first iPhone, so perhaps that makes up a little for that silly thing he said about shutting down Apple that looks even sillier in hindsight. (Lesson: Life is weird! Don’t be a jerk.)

But this isn’t about shaming Mr. Dell, now that he is taking Dell private at a small fraction of its peak value, so he can make big changes and try to save the company. This is about the one time Dell really impressed me, how it ultimately disappointed me, what I’ve learned from that, and maybe a hope for Dell’s future.

It was August 2004 and I had just returned home to Chicago after spending three months living out of a backpack across Europe — from DeGaulle to Dubrovnik, as I liked to say. I had recently graduated from Northwestern and was planning to live at home for a year, save some money, and maybe move to New York and get a media job.

I had a 45-minute commute to work and wanted a computer to play with on the train. My iPod was good at music but it was useless beyond that. Apple had nothing else to offer me; the Mac laptops at the time were unpleasantly heavy. My Sony Ericsson phone was fun for taking grainy photos and checking sports scores over the slow, early mobile web, but it wasn’t powerful enough for much more. Palm seemed to be stuck in a rut, selling boring devices with lame software and weak Internet support.

Dell Axim x30The only thing on the market that really impressed me was the Dell Axim X30, a lightweight, silver PDA with a full-size color touchscreen, built-in wifi (rare!), an expansion-card slot, and what I had hoped would be a useful Microsoft operating system, which was at least colorful. It was $408.

It was the most excited I had been about a gadget in years, and it was a Dell. As a lifelong Apple/Mac person, this confused me. But it also felt a little fun to step outside my comfort zone. This was, in theory, an iPod touch three years before Apple invented it. Dell was way ahead of the game. The thing even looked pretty cool.

I bought it to read and write email on the train, play a few games, read electronic books, watch movies, and to use the web at home when I wasn’t at my desk. In theory, the Axim and Windows Mobile supported all of those activities.

But in reality, it was a huge let-down. The wifi was weak, the OS was buggy, things crashed all the time, and the pocket version of Outlook was useless. Locating and installing apps was hard work. Movies weren’t smooth. Trying to sync the thing to a Mac was basically impossible.

For all the foresight Dell had to get into pocket computing years ahead of the pack, it lost everything in poor execution. The hardware was mostly nice, but the software was horrible, and the ecosystem was non-existent. I sold my Axim on eBay in late 2006 for $200, after I’d picked up a Palm Treo, which at least, sort-of, sometimes worked.

My lesson from the experience: A gadget’s software and ecosystem matter ten times more than its hardware. Apple gets frequent praise for its hardware design, deservedly! But what really made the iPhone unique and amazing — and the iPod before it — was its software. It was simple, elegant, and it almost always did what it promised: The exact opposite of my Dell Axim + Windows Mobile experience. This is a lesson I applied not only in my future gadget purchases, but also in my career .

It’s easy and appealing to poke Apple for things like the iOS Maps screwup, but by and large, it has led the world in handheld software (and ecosystem) for a decade. Meanwhile, whatever Dell gained by being years ahead of the handheld computer trend, it lost by relying on Microsoft, which is still way behind. This continues to hobble Dell today. (Its attempts to make Android devices haven’t been much more successful.)

I have no idea what Michael Dell is going to try to make Dell in 2013. Perhaps it will be an enterprise software company, or a consulting services company, or a tablet company, or something entirely different.

But my hope — for Dell’s sake — is that if it ever finds itself in an interesting place again, it understands the need to get the whole story right. For instance, if it’s ever years ahead of the market with a hardware product again, it better have the software ecosystem to go along with it.

This is going to be really hard — especially as Dell is seeking Microsoft’s help to go private — and it may already be too late. But still today, I’m a little sad about what might have been with that cool little Axim.