Second Acts, Second Life

Opinion: Saying goodbye is proving difficult for big names.

Many thanks to the readers who responded to my 10 tips for Michael Dell column that ran online. While some of you argued with suggestions regarding the consumer business, laptops and so on, all agreed that Dell has to focus more on customer service. That makes sense: If you cant keep your current customers happy, you shouldnt be out chasing new customers.

Ill call Michael Dells current strategy "The return of the comeback kid." It is interesting as you look at the current high-tech industry how different the return, stay-put or exit strategies have been for some of the founders who were integral in creating the IT industry in the United States. Heres my current lineup.

As I said, Michael Dell is the lone Texan riding back into town to set things right. According to an article from The Associated Press, Dell is already quashing bonuses and advocating the reduction of bureaucracy and faster product development. That is a lot to take on. I hope those plans arent solely geared to trying to revive the Dell of yesteryear. The world has changed, with laptops now the computer of choice for businesses. Theres also an expectation that a companys computing lineup includes more than just the latest products from Intel and Microsoft, and services are the key differentiator for many buyers. Simply trying to put the old band back together is not sufficient.

Those pointing to the successful return of Steve Jobs should pay careful attention to the new Apple created by his return. I refer to his strategy as "Now for something different." Rather than creating or re-creating the Apple of old, Jobs took the company into a decidedly new direction toward music and now phones. He recognized that simply updating the old product lines would not be sufficient.

Other founders strategies? How about Larry Ellisons strategy of going sailing, flying or anywhere except the office? In what was Oracles biggest product introduction in years in New York recently—its Applications Unlimited—Ellison was absent. His absence was not terribly missed as Oracle Co-President Charles Phillips did a good job of promising the companys customers that they could have their applications any way they desire: updated regularly, served via a hosted offering or as part of one big application when the companys Fusion product is finally delivered. Phillips outlined an application evolution strategy rather than ask customers to abandon all for a great leap forward.

And what about "The long goodbye," with Microsofts Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer? In what could be the slowest corporate exit in the history of high tech, Gates continues to sound the same as when Windows was first introduced. Each product introduction is always the biggest in the companys history, fixes all past problems and copies nothing from Apples computing operating system and interface.

Meanwhile, the initiative that has Ballmers greatest stamp on it so far, I think, is the Innovative Communications Alliance, a unified communications platform developed between Microsoft and Nortel. Unified communications offers real benefits, is easily understood by customers, and has a range of big and small competitors. Ballmer is always at his best when he is staring down the competition. Anyway, maybe he can use the Microsoft unified communications platform to tell Gates it really is time to start packing up the office.

There have been other noticeable goodbye strategies, including those of former Sun CEO Scott McNealy heading off to the golf course and IBM CEO Sam Palmisano sort of disappearing, except for the occasional appearance, such as in the Second Life virtual world. Cometo think of it, maybe the virtual world is where we will find all those high-tech execs—either making a comeback bid or enjoying their time in a virtual sailboat or playing virtual golf.

Editorial Director Eric Lundquist can be reached at