The old guard of the IT industry recognized in the 1980s and 1990s that tech support, professional services and outsourcing could generate lucrative revenues and create greater lock-in opportunities in an increasingly commoditized hardware business. Lou Gerstner saved IBM by turning it into a services company.
Dell (DELL) bucked this trend by investing in sophisticated supply-chain, fulfillment and customer service processes which enabled it to succeed as a low-cost, high-margin manufacturer.
HP stole a page from Dell's book and usurped its price advantage. Without a strong services story to serve as a safety-net, Dell was vulnerable to customer defections. It is now seeking to regain its competitive advantage by redefining how services are delivered. In the old world, services were a people-intensive business and highly customized. Dell plans to automate and simplify the way services are delivered.
After acquiring SilverBack Technologies and Everdream in 2007, Dell acquired MessageOne this past week. MessageOne is a leading provider of Software-as-a-Service [SaaS] enabled enterprise-class e-mail business continuity, compliance, archiving and disaster recovery services. MessageOne is in the same business as Postini, which Google acquired last year to fortify its Gmail capabilities and recently rolled out as an enterprise-class email archival service.
What makes Dell's acquisition intriguing is the fact that it doesn't offer an email service. But, that isn't stopping Dell from adding this functionality to its rapidly growing portfolio of SaaS capabilities that now include remote desktop, server, security and helpdesk management services.
Dell has promised to deliver these SaaS capabilities via its growing array of channel partners to support their managed service offerings, but has also admitted that it will utilize them to support some of its customers directly. This direct service capability and a history of ignoring resellers has led to rising concerns among channel companies that Dell is going to commoditize their traditional on-site support business.
Dell isn't just SaaSifying its services business.
Dell also unveiled this week a new Storage Simplification Assessment program which Dell promises will simplify the process of evaluating and selecting storage, backup, recovery and archiving solutions. Dell will offer these assessments directly and through its channel partners.
Dell has also restructured its customer support portfolio, consolidating its previous offerings into two simple options,
At Ziff-Davis' recent Channel Summit, Dell's channel czar in the Americas--Greg Davis--was asked if Dell intends to commoditize services the way it commoditized the hardware business. He said no, it planned to simplify the way services are packaged and priced.
If Dell's moves are successful, they will encourage customers to set new standards for how services are sold and delivered. This will force other technology companies to restructure their service portfolios and streamline their delivery mechanisms in order to compete. It will also force channel companies to re-think how they package, price and position their services.