dell sweet dell – a 16+ year history of “electronic commerce”

dell sweet dell – a 16+ year history of “electronic commerce”

even before they turned the E I was working for Dell

* I got permed after a year and had an official Dell badge, until the 2009 economic layoffs started.

Back in the day…

Before the internet got Mosaic, or Netscape.
Before the Latitude had a cd-rom drive.
Before Dell left the green building in the Arboretum in Austin, Texas, for the stark desert of Round Rock.
Before Multimedia had anything to do with computers.
Before Dell went public.
Before John Medica redesigned the Latitude to be more like a Mac and continued the laptop design evolution he began at Apple.
Before SicolaMartin had an interactive department.
Before Macromedia Director (then called MotionWorks) and LONG before Flash.
Before the Neville Brothers played Dell’s 1996 Christmas party.
Before Michael was married.
Before anything other than deer ran upon the hilltop in Westlake where Michael now has his modern-day castle.

I had a dream.  And Apple was part of that dream. And Dell was a MAJOR part of that dream. At SicolaMartin, I was fortunate enough to lead a series of projects that established an interactive development group within SicolaMartin. Our team had a shot at designing version 1.0! I recall frequently drawing the “cloud” that represented the World Wide Web, as we described it. (“It’s like this cloud.”) And then scribbling out site map after site map on whiteboards until our team organized around a concept called the THE DELL UNIVERSE.

As I was a bit fanatical at the time, reading New Media Magazine, Wired and other cutting edge “multimedia” magazines, and I distinctly remember reading the term “electronic commerce” for the first time.  This is about the time advertising folks like me were talking about “interactive television” as the next big thing. Nobody knew what “electronic commerce” or “interactive television” was, but for those of us trying to sell the dream it was a frontier that we were willing to promote and jump into with abandon, even if we had no idea what we were talking about.

And the first time I wrote “electronic commerce” on the whiteboard site map for The Dell Universe. I was grilled to explain what I meant. And try as I might, I could not adequately explain what I was talking about.

No one believed. (Mind you this was before Amazon was even a concept. And Amazon would lose billions of dollars over the next 5 years trying to prove that “e-commerce” was REAL and that it would eventually be a major force in retail.) I could not articulate that vision of the future. And the SALES PLANET was erased from the THE DELL UNIVERSE before it was ever presented to anyone at Dell.

[UPDATE: I found the deck for V1 – the first integrated design approach to Dell’s online presence.]

building the first

And here’s a glimpse at our map for Dell World Wide – The Americas.


Of course the rest is history. Dell Computer Corporation built a new logo with the E turned funny, broke ground on a new campus east of the highway in Round Rock and began selling computers over the internet. And in 1996 Dell delivered on a promise known as “e-commerce.”

In 2007 I once again took my place on Dell’s leading edge electronic commerce team, Dell Global Online. This time on the client side, as we ad-folks call it when you work for “the company” and not “the agency.”

[UPDATE: It just occurred to me that I did not get to meet Michael Dell during any of the 20 or so meetings I had with his executives during the course of this project. And flash forward to today, I have only seen Michael Dell twice while working at Dell for nearly two years. Both times he was presenting to an all-hands meeting with hundreds of us in the audience. And though I have commented on his facebook page and taken good care of his “little green garden” I have not had any direct contact with him.]


Except that one time, at the first Comdex after we had completed DMW. Michael was presenting to the large volume Dell customers or Platinum Customers. And I was there to make sure nothing went wrong with his demo of DMW.

So he ran through the cd-rom and there were no screens of death. I could not have been more proud at that moment, more proud of the team that had built something innovative and new. And TS the owner of the agency was beaming as well. I almost imagined him nodding to me in approval, but I’m not sure that happened.

And when he was done, Michael Dell took questions from the audience.

Now, remember this is the year the first Dell Latitude was released. John Medica had just engineered Dell’s notebook computer to work more like a mac, by moving the keys to the back of the keyboard thus giving all of us the palm rest we know and love. Prior to Apple’s first second entry into the notebook computer market, all keys were at the front of the keyboard. [insert historical pic here – nah, go google it yourself]

So I was beaming and feeling pretty full of myself. And something in me wanted to show off or take my bow/acceptance speech. So I stood up and patiently waited for Michael to call on me. I could hardly stand it. The DMW intro screen was still projected on the screen behind him, about 20 feet across the back of the stage.

And here’s what I asked. “Mr. Dell, when do you think Dell’s notebook computers will begin offering multimedia features?” I don’t really know what I was hoping to prove, or if I was trying to show up the man, but it was a real question that had been burning in me and our entire development team as we were trying to get the Dell laptop to run video and audio from an external Sony cd-rom drive and external Sony speakers. Apple was also the first multimedia-ready notebook with built-in sound and a cd-rom drive.

And Mr. Dell’s answer was simple and direct. “When the business customer starts asking for multimedia, I think we will consider it.”


That was it! The one encounter with Michael S Dell. After 6 months of work and a huge surge in adrenaline, it was over. I didn’t mention Apple, I didn’t mention John Medica, I didn’t mention the Apple Developer cd-rom that was the source of inspiration for the DMW project. I just wanted to know…

9 months later, Dell introduced the first Latitude with “multimedia capabilities.” This was Windows-95-era computing.  I was long gone from SicolaMartin by that time and happily typing away on my Medica-designed  Apple Powerbook 165. They looked like this:

The Apple Powerbook 165

And in January of 2009 the economic free fall was in full swing and about half of my Global Online group was given a generous exit strategy. I did not want to leave Dell. I might have been frustrated at the time. Of course, I have grown since then. And while I do use Dell as a benchmark for the entire PC industry, it is not because I hate, it is because I passionately want Dell to do better. I may not be right about it, but I still have ideas of how to help.

UPDATE 1-24-12: And last Friday I helped author my 35th proposal to Dell for online support work. Keep coming back, it works.

Dell History on Wikipedia.

+++ update, Michael says he read this post and liked it +++

micheal dell says thanks for the memories
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
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