This is typically the time when a lot of you start going out to bid for your personal computer refresh. I'm going to cover this topic in three parts. The first is a discussion on the primary vendors and where their relative strengths and weaknesses are. The second will be the questions to ask each. We'll close with alternative technologies, things that are coming to market (or are already here) that you might want to begin considering instead of traditional PCs and laptops.
Basically we now have three tiers of vendors in this space: Comprehensive vendors, with full lines of hardware ranging from laptops to servers that they sell globally; focused vendors who deal almost exclusively on PCs and laptops and sometimes limit their sales areas; and specialized vendors.
HP: Hewlett-Packard is the broadest vendor by far remaining in this segment. With lines that extend down into phones and handheld computers and up to the largest UNIX and Linux-based server systems, coupled with a robust worldwide services organization, HP has the most breadth and flexibility in choices. In addition (and we'll cover this in the last section), it has the most PC-alternative technologies in the market.
Organized to lead on technology and be competitive on price, and with the largest market share, HP has an inherent materials cost advantage, though it historically has had a disadvantage in overhead and agility when compared to some other vendors. Its executive management is aggressively addressing this fault and HP recently has come to dominate a number of segments.
While not historically the case, HP is deploying the leading technologies it sells. This has visibly helped its bottom line and serves as sharp contrast to vendors such as IBM, which traditionally do not use the leading technologies they sell.
So far, the design advancements that have cut across HP's consumer lines have yet to affect its business lines, but that is expected within the next 12 months. HP is one of the companies that had a battery recall, but no lasting issues appear to be tracking and satisfaction continues to be at acceptable levels.
Issues often surround HP's complexity and inherent bureaucracy, which can make it more difficult than most to deal with. As a large company, HP typically works best with other large companies, particularly where executive relationships are maintained at a high level.
Overall, there is a reason HP leads the segment but, as a very large company, it requires focused management or expectations and needs likely will not be met.
HP is likely best for companies that want to lead on innovation and advancement, particularly those that are aggressive on both green initiatives and bottom-line performance. While both HP and Dell lend themselves to companies trying to optimize agility, HP is best where the partnership is broad and deep, while Dell is best where it is simply a vendor relationship.
Dell: Dell's lines aren't as broad as HP's and they lack the technology focus. On the other hand, Dell's strength is in logistics, and it has historically played well against HP's and IBM's organizational and bureaucratic weaknesses.
Dell's difficulties of late result from overly cutting costs for support organizations. It has been working to improve customer satisfaction and responsiveness. It also recently brought back founder Michael Dell to run the business, and he remains well regarded inside and outside the company.
Dell is in undergoing a major design language overhaul with the initial impact on consumer products as it updates its product look and profile. Its competitive advantage remains a relatively lean organizational structure and advanced logistics systems, which can provide purchasing companies with better information about shipment and any problems.
Though it received a lot of attention for dropping behind HP, Dell remains the second-most powerful company in the segment and most appropriate for companies focusing on price and ease of doing business.
This doesn't mean it doesn't break, and maintaining account support and executive relationships is no less important with Dell than with any other vendor in this review.
This makes Dell best for companies with a strong logistics and purchasing organization that can take advantage of the benefits Dell offers.
Next Page: Focused Vendors
Lenovo: Lenovo has worldwide coverage but is limited in that it currently partners with IBM for server coverage in most of the world. Building what many feel is the premier laptop line under the ThinkPad brand, Lenovo has been known to set the bar on quality, but historically is the most bureaucratic of all major PC vendors.
After the acquisition of IBM's PC division, Lenovo has gone through a substantial organizational and staffing redesign. This has made it vastly more responsive, and reports from the field indicate it is incredibly aggressive in bidding situations right now.
While there were some reported quality issues several months back, these may have been as much about perceived changes in Lenovo's organization and ownership than any real problems.
Lenovo continues to transition away from IBM and toward the unique concept of a truly global company with executive leadership split between the United States and China. Much of this company's potential has yet to be seen outside China, where the full power of its product portfolio exists.
That will change over time and Lenovo has been reported to be very aggressive at acquiring new customers and responsive to those it has. Still, as with any company undergoing change, close relationships need to be maintained to ensure the changes affect you as little as possible.
Lenovo is unique in two ways: It has ThinkVantage technologies, a comprehensive software package it uses to differentiate products, and a comparatively static design language coupled with some unique features such as keyboard lights. It has been slow to adopt wide-aspect- ratio displays and other now-common features in favor of ensuring greater product consistency than most.
This makes them most attractive to organizations highly resistant to change, but that appreciate comparatively feature-rich offerings.
Gateway: Gateway remains strong in the United States and has an entry position in Europe, but it is not a global company. Focused more on the mid-market than on the enterprise, Gateway has been undergoing a lot of change over the past few years, as it has changed models and CEOs extensively. Previously, it appeared to be letting its business lines languish as it focused on the low-end consumer market, but Gateway has been investing heavily in rebuilding its business lines and has solid products in the United States and Europe again.
As a smaller company, it seems more focused on other smaller companies and often is seen as more responsive to local government, education, and mid-range business than some of the larger players. It has a limited server line, which goes farther than Lenovo's worldwide offerings, but falls well short of what HP and Dell provide. Still it likely is adequate for most mid-market uses and is designed for the mainstream.
Its value proposition appears closely aligned to providing competitive prices for good hardware and it tends to test well on customer satisfaction within its target segments. It also is focusing more on product design and its current business lines make wide use of metals and brushed finishes consistent with the next-generation design language we are anticipating. It has been quicker to get next-generation products to market than Dell or HP, though its lines remain more limited.
Gateway remains best for mid-market companies that want greater focus and care than they likely would get from one of the large global players.
Toshiba: Toshiba is global but laptop-only and not appropriate for companies that want blended bids. Having said that, Toshiba's focus has resulted in a strong laptop line and it has several flagship technology showcase products that executives probably would appreciate getting.
Toshiba historically has had good quality and generally good support, but it is severely hampered by the inability to provide complete coverage for a company's PC needs. As a result, Toshiba has become increasingly less relevant over time and has struggled to maintain or increase market share.
With decisions driven largely out of Japan, Toshiba is trying to transition to a model that can better focus on the locations it serves, but has yet to demonstrate changes that indicate it is ready to compete in the United States and Europe. Toshiba would be best for companies that break apart laptop, desktop and server bidding and focus on best-of-breed offerings, particularly when it comes to providing flagship products to top executives and board members.
Sony, Fujitsu, and Fujitsu-Siemens: The last set of companies are largely bit players. Sony has never been taken seriously in business, Fujitsu is different in each major region and has little presence in the United States, and Fujitsu-Siemens is a partnership with a blend of both companies' products in Europe only.
Sony builds a good product, but never really embraced the business market. The Fujitsu blends tend to be focused on segments such as health care and regions such as Europe, but lack anything approaching consistency internationally. I don't consider them serious broad players as a result, but in niches, and with individual companies, they have provided unique service. I simply do not have enough information on them to define where they would best work and, were I bidding out, would likely not invite them to bid as a result. (Exceptions might be in Asia for Fujitsu or Sony, and Europe for Fujitsu-Siemens.)
Apple is more of a consumer/SMB vendor today. That might change -- in fact, I expect it to change -- after the release of Leopard, but it will be some time before it has the kind of history that makes a report like this meaningful. For now, Apple is simply best for Apple folks and they know who they are (and probably aren't reading this).
Next post, I'll look at the question you need to ask these vendors during your bidding process.