The Backstory on How Dell Displaced Apple in Sparksight

Rob Enderle
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People tend to get stuck in a mindset about a vendor. Even though they may seem to accept that vendors change people, strategies and personalities over time, their perceptions of that vendor as a whole are rarely challenged or changed. For instance, I drive two Jaguars; the older one was basically built by Ford and the newer one was built in a factory run by folks from Mercedes. The second one is even better, yet folks ask me about reliability issues as if the cars were still built by British Motors.

No tighter connection exists between people and a brand than with Apple and its loyal customers. The firm maintains the highest loyalty scores of any company, even though Tim Cook runs the firm very differently than Steve Jobs did, and the fact that after Jobs passed, a huge change was made in the firm’s staffing. Whether better or worse, the Apple that exists today has to be different from the one that existed last decade. It is fundamentally a different company. Yet most don’t see it that way.

This was exemplified when I was briefed as part of Dell’s advisory council on its win at Sparksight, a firm that has been outspoken in its support of Apple and has been a long-time Apple shop. For an Apple shop to shift to Dell is one of those “dog bites man” stories you don’t get often. I think it reflects that both firms have changed. Dell isn’t the firm it was last decade, either.

Sparksight’s Issue: Final Cut Pro

This is the story as best I can recall it. (A video from the Sparksight folks doesn’t really reflect the full power of what happened.)

Dell, like a lot of vendors, believes deeply that its technology is market leading. It presented Sparksight, a known Apple house, with a workstation to test. Personally, I doubt I’d take that risk because tests like this tend to favor the embedded vendor deeply and Apple fans tend to be outspoken in particular when they slam dunk a vendor like Dell.

To be fair, Sparksight had become dissatisfied with Final Cut Pro 10 because it had, in that company’s opinion, made a hard turn to embrace consumers and left pros out in the cold. The company had recently shifted back to Adobe tools. It would typically shoot to have a project ready to render by the end of the day Friday, and then would run it overnight, sending some poor sap in on Saturday to check if the rendering effort had crashed. If it did, he’d keep coming back over the weekend to restart/fix it until it completed. It was taking eight to nine hours to render relatively complex but short projects.


Dell Failed Miserably-Oh Wait?!?

So Sparksight figured it would try the Dell Precision workstations. As expected, they failed miserably. The Dell workstations appeared to fail from 45 to 90 minutes after the render started. Sparksight wanted to talk to the Dell people and rub their face in the fact that Windows machines, and particularly Dell workstations, were crap.

The thing was, when the Dell folks, clearly embarrassed, showed up to look at what happened, they discovered that the workstations hadn’t crashed. They’d completed the rendering effort in that 45-minute to 90-minute time frame. The Apple folks were so convinced that Windows machines sucked, they just assumed that they’d crashed without looking to see how much of the job had been completed. Who would have believed that Dell Windows machines would be that much faster?

Now, with optimizing tools, they are consistently completing a rendering effort in 45 minutes: no more waiting until the weekend. Productivity has gone up massively because they can do more frequent renders and thus create better and more frequent products. This has made some rather attractive improvements to the bottom line and, I expect, customer satisfaction and employee morale.

It’s About the App

One of the big things that flows through this story is that for a shop like Sparksight, the users mostly live in the apps. It is not like they are spending a lot of time in the Windows or Mac user interface, anyway, and, in this case, that means they are living in Adobe. Ever since Final Cut Pro went after Adobe’s business, Adobe hasn’t exactly been a huge Apple fan. So I would expect some of this performance advantage likely has to do with changes in how Adobe optimizes for Apple.

In addition, because these folks live in the apps, whether someone has a high-performance Mac or a Windows workstation is more about the performance of the app than it is about the vendor or hardware. Adobe is Adobe, for the most part, so you shouldn’t need to do a lot of retraining when you move between environments.

This is true of most workstation loads. The apps drive the hardware choices, not the other way around, so being an Apple or a Windows fan is just stupid. Your connection is to the application and if you lose track of that, you will likely become less efficient and less successful as a result.

Finally, sometimes it is good to check perceptions. Things change a lot in the technology market. No vendor is the same as it was last decade. HP, Dell, Lenovo, IBM and Apple are virtually different companies. They could be better or worse, but you need to check this change before making a buying decision or you’re likely to make a huge mistake because the assumptions that you lived by last decade are likely false.

Wrapping Up:  Be Willing to Change

At the beginning of the last decade, the idea that someone would switch from Microsoft to Apple was almost ludicrous. By the end of the decade, it wasn’t as much a surprise, particularly with respect to tablets, but switching from Apple to Dell sounded equally unlikely. Apparently, that has changed now as well, and Dell is clearly pushing its newfound advantage very aggressively.

I think it is the quote from Sparksight itself that is the most powerful. While their heart was with Apple, their business survives because their executives think with their heads, and with twice the business value, they are becoming a Dell account. It wasn’t the direction they wanted to go; it was the one they had to take. In one picture, you can see why.

In the end, the big takeaway isn’t that Dell outperforms Apple. Actually, that is kind of an understatement in this case. It is that Sparksight was willing to challenge its assumptions and think with the head, not the heart. This is the lasting lesson because while vendors change, the only thing that shouldn’t is your willingness to see and adapt to a vendor world that will never be constant.

Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm.  With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+



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