In the first part of this three-part series, I handicapped the PC and laptop vendors. Now I'll discuss the questions to ask these vendors, and in the final installment I'll talk about alternatives to the PCs you probably are currently using.
I'll break this up into two major sections. The first will be on generic questions that should be asked of all bidders, and the second on questions you should ask specific companies.
Generic Questions for PC Vendors
Road Map: We will make a number of hardware changes in the next few months; on mobile you will see the emergence of two storage technologies, hybrid hard drives and turbo memory. The first is relatively worthless near-term, but the second has several performance benefits for laptops in terms of faster boot times and lower power use. In addition, LED backlit displays are starting to hit the market on laptops, promising lower power use and brightness that's closer to desktop displays. Both AMD and Intel will be ramping in chipsets and processors that are much more power-efficient for both desktops and laptops.
In addition, design has become a big factor in laptops, and I expect that over the next few months, you will see some major changes, much like you already have seen from Gateway. You'll want a view out at least 12 months so you can time your purchase cycle to either the last of the old models or the first of the new.
Windows Vista: I know you don't want to hear this, but by the first part of the year, it will be incredibly hard to get Windows XP, and Windows XP won't support most of the hardware, particularly mobile hardware, that will come out next year.
You want to ask how much experience the vendor has with Vista, whether it has deployed the OS itself and whether it can connect you with with any of its early deployment accounts. This last request is both to get advice from those buyers and to make sure the vendor will not be learning with you. In addition, you want the company's assurance that its support team has done this before.
Account Management: You want to meet the person likely to manage your account and ask what other accounts that person has managed. Experience suggests that your satisfaction with any vendor will be directly related to the responsiveness of your account manager.
When you call on the other accounts, both from the last question and this, make sure you ask about account management churn. You might start with a really good team, but end up with crap after the bid is let. You want to know whether you can protect your support team. Ask how you assure no changes will be made unless you can ensure a replacement will work for you. (It is also wise to make sure someone you like gets credit and develops a loyalty to you. A good rep can save your life.)
Technology: We'll cover much of this in the next section, but what does the company offer in addition, or as an alternative, to the Windows PC? Some companies have blade initiatives, others have Linux, and still others offer thin clients. Look at the breadth of the firm's offering and whether some alternative technologies make sense for you. Even if you don't use them this cycle, understanding the alternatives can help you plan for the future.
Also look at the vendor's solutions for system and desktop software management. While you often can use one vendor's tools with another vendor, ideally vendors will always know their own tools best. If you are making a change, it's best to anticipate problems and to look at alternatives. This will give you a sense of each vendor's unique offerings.
Green: This is big in a number of companies and government agencies right now. Ask about its disposal policies, use of non-coated plastics to protect landfills, and how aggressively green the company is itself. Disposal costs are going up, and you want to make sure you can contain them. Plus, you don't want to show up on some environmentalist's list of bad companies yourself.
Some companies can even help you save money while being more green. This is a timely question, so ask before you let the bid.
Escalation Path: You want to know which executives to call if you have a problem, which executive will own your relationship, and you want to talk to him or her. Some executives do a good job with company relationships and many blow them off. The last thing you need, after the company has your money, is to find your priorities are last on the executive's list.
HP: HP has three initiatives you should specifically address. It is the only vendor that claims financial benefits from its green initiative, and that is worth exploring. HP is also one of the most aggressive in PC technology, both in its products and in alternatives. Understand these options and get a time line for them. And, finally, HP is one of the most comprehensive systems management vendors, and that, too, is worth exploring.
Dell: Focus on how it's fixing past problems. It typically also provides access to its most senior executives. Play that card during the bidding process. Finally, this company works best closely linked -- a reference account in your industry (in close proximity) will help you not only reach your decision, but, should you choose Dell, following its best practices should allow you to best make use of the inter-company systems it provides.
Lenovo: Spend some time learning about ThinkVantage technologies. Much of Lenovo's power resides in China, where much of its future will come. Discuss future directions and upcoming technologies that you might take advantage of. Lenovo is replacing much of its old IBM gear and seeing incredibly strong financial benefits from that. If you run a lot of older IBM systems, understand how it is managing that change.