Is Dell an innovator? The company says YES and says it often. I think it is wrong.

Dell fears the perception that it is just a maker of great boxes that ship in huge numbers after its well known original innovation; the build-to-order direct sales model with no resellers or OEMs. Michael Dell took that innovation and built a great, a truly great company. En route his managers and executives oiled, polished, tweaked and tweaked again the direct sales model.

Sure, they did new things but these are what managers and executives are supposed to do: iron out problems; get things performing better. They did these things brilliantly, integrating the OEM supplied product components of Dell gear into superb boxes and making the company probably the best IT box shipper on Earth. But innovative?

Daring and surprising Dell

We can see instances where Dell has been daring and done something surprising. For example:-

- The EMC AX drive array supply deal
- Getting into printers
- Getting into hand-held computers, with the Axim
- Buying a services company
- Producing flash-memory based Latitude notebook
- Adding removable disk cartridges to its products

But these are 'me too' activities. There is no original invention here, no departure from IT industry norms. For sure the departure from the Dell norm was more or less significant but following somebody else's lead is not being innovative, however well done the execution of the move is.

That execution can be very well done indeed by Dell. The company had deliverable LTO4 tape drive products before the three LTO consortium members: HP; IBM; and Quantum. That is a real tribute of the ability of Dell to work with its partners fast and very, very well.

In two of the examples above Dell has followed someone else very quickly. It was close behind Tandberg in taking the ProStor removable hard drive cartridges and the first major PC and server supplier to take this product on board. So far no-one else has followed suit. To my mind this is all-credit to Dell and shame on the rest of the PC/server industry.

The flash-based Latitude followed hard on the heels of Sony. With this and the RDX example Dell is getting close to being the first to adopt a new technology and that is getting close to being innovative.

Reactive Dell

Recently Dell has made a couple of huge changes in its products. It has started using AMD chips alongside Intel ones after a fervent and 100 percent Intel-only policy, and it has started shipping Linux systems after a fervent and 100 percent Microsoft Windows policy. In both cases it was forced to the decision after much prevarication, a huge amount of prevarication in the AMD case where Dell appeared to have been flirting with AMD for years.

Neither of these moves was innovative. They could have been but both AMD and Linux had been adopted by other suppliers, by Dell competitors, in a much more convincing fashion. Let's think about IBM and Linux for a moment if we want to consider a full-throated Linux adoption. Let's look at Novell and Suse for a bet-the-company decision. Let's look at Sun and its emphatic exploitation of AMD Opteron advantages.

In comparison, Dell decision-makers appeared to be paralysed by analysis and frozen like rabbits in the headlights of the onrushing market forces threatening them. This isn't being innovative; it's being reactive.

Architecturally innovative Dell

Liam Quinn, a senior technology executive at Dell, says the company is architecturally innovative and mentions the Storage Bay Bridge working group. Dell is working with EMC, LSI Logic, Intel and lots of others in this group and it was created to drive standardisation in entry-level external storage. The SBB expects to speed the delivery of emerging storage technologies, such as iSCSI (Internet small computer systems interface), SAS (serial attached SCSI), archiving and virtual tape libraries.

No doubt new things will emerge and it is working at the computer sub-system architectural level but this is incremental improvement and standardisation. It is not innovation, not in the Winchester disk, iMac, Google Search sense. It is very important work. It will have measurable and appreciated benefits. It is significant but, set against the invention of the first Intel CPU chip it is a relatively trivial activity.

Dell's disinclination to invent

Let's refresh ourselves with a few, just a few, well-known IT industry innovations:-

- The original IBM PC, System 36 from IBM, mainframe stuff, Winchester disks, patent after patent after patent
- Workstations from Sun, NFS from Sun, Java from Sun, AMD exploitation from Sun, Open Office from Sun, Thumper and Honeycomb hybrid storage/servers from Sun, Blackbox data centre in a container from Sun
- Itanium gear from HP, RISS from HP, printers from HP, (Pretexting? No, we'll leave that one alone)
- Apple PC, Mac, MacOS, iPhone, MacBook, etc. from Apple
- Search from Google, Google Earth

Here are some more storage-focused ones

- Drive arrays from EMC
- Filers and clustered filers and iSCSI stuff from NetApp
- File virtualising switches from Acopia
- Thin provisioning from 3PAR and others
- Zip disk and Rev disk from Iomega
- Helical tape recording from Sony and others

Looking at this list we can say that Dell has certainly benefited from other companies' innovations by building them into its boxes and shipping them out in huge numbers. But compared to companies like Apple and Sun, Dell is - it's obvious isn't it? - not in the same league. In fact it's almost as if Dell, that byword for cautious and controlled risk-taking, has a disincentive to invent. It sticks to its knitting instead and only makes significant changes when market forces or customer disquiet drags it screaming, kicking and struggling to the decision point; witness the AMD and Linux decisions.

The nearest software equivalent to Dell is probably Microsoft, another brilliant imitator of other people's technology. So brilliant it destroys the original innovator - so much for first mover advantages. Dell, like Microsoft, is a kick-ass second mover, and what a huge and mighty kick it has; pro-IT football at its best. But it is not kicking in innovative new ways, it just kicks better than other people when a new thing comes along ready-invented, and it coaches its team in newish ways, but nothing revolutionary. That is simply not in Dell's genes.

Even Dell's original innovation took an existing supply model and applied it, brilliantly, wonderfully, to the supply of PCs. The move was brilliant and outstandingly innovative in IT industry terms, but less so outside the IT industry.

Proclaiming that you're innovative, which is what Liam Quinn and other hard-working, steady and effective managers and executives at Dell do, cannot cover up the reality. Against the high standards set by Apple and Sun, HP and IBM, EMC and others, Dell is not innovative. It may become innovative, it once was profoundly innovative, it is close to being innovative, but it is not actually innovative. This particular Dell emperor is wearing no clothes.