Friday, January 25, 2008

Is it getting better, or do you feel the same?

I'm glad to see Dell and Microsoft join together to create a PC for Product(Red). At the same time, I can't help but recall an awakening experience I had in my closing weeks as a Dell employee in late 2006. I was a peripheral member of Dell's product development team and I suggested we get in touch with the Product(Red) organization to explore the concept of producing a PC for them. We were developing several red notebook PCs at this point and it seemed like a natural fit. This was around the time Bono went on Oprah to launch the Product(Red) in the US. The organization had been active in Europe for seven or eight months at this point and I had been following it closely. The product team leads I suggested this to were intrigued by the idea and they brought it up with others, but the idea was shot down because, I was told, Bono was perceived as being too closely aligned with Apple, referring, I suppose, to the U2 edition of the iPod and Apple's use of U2 concert footage in video iPod marcomm.

So I let it rest. Fast forward a few weeks. I was in a product development meeting with the same team leads I suggested the idea to and their manager told the team that Michael Dell was interested in reaching out to the Product(Red) team to see if we could designate an upcoming red laptop as a Product(Red) product. That's a great idea, I remember thinking.

Anyway, the lesson to me that day was to trust my instincts. I may not be the most eloquent chap around, but I have some decent ideas from time to time. No hard feelings. That's part of corporate life. Of course Michael Dell's ideas are going to be easier to act on than an idea from some grunt in the product group. It does remind me of a certain FedEx commercial. Remember the one?

One of the things I was struggling with that very week was whether or not I should accept a job at Comcast Interactive Media. In retrospect it was a no-brainer, but in the moment it was a very difficult decision. There were no guarantees, but my instincts told me that the opportunities for me would be better if I made the move. 14 months on, I can say making the switch was the best career decision I've ever made. More importantly, it has worked out well for my family as well.

Back to the Product(Red) PCs by Dell & Microsoft. It looks like they may be forcing buyers into a higher-margin config and not allowing them to delete down to a more basic config. That may make sense from a branding perspective -- sell it as an aspirational product, but in this day of comparison shopping, it makes Dell and Microsoft appear to be placing profits over the charitable spirit of the Product(Red) campaign. Dell is a very charitable company and I was extremely impressed with the culture of giving back while I was there. They should bring this product into alignment with those principles and allow people to buy the lower end config and still have some of the funds go to Africa. Actually, this looks like a Microsoft issue to me. Dollars to donuts they're marking up the Product(Red) version of Vista and Dell is passing on the cost. For what? A couple of widgets and a screensaver? What's the marginal cost of that? I guess they have to differentiate or else every PC would become a Product(Red) PC and then they'd have to give money to Africa on every PC sold. That could get pricey. One of the principles of Product(Red) is that it is sustainable. It makes sense for everyone. Unfortunately, the side by side pricing comparison makes Dell and Microsoft look they're protecting their profits before supporting the charity.

I don't want to sound too negative. I think it is great that they are doing this. It is tough to get big corporations mobilized for this kind of effort and to align interests, but I think they should find some some additional differentiation points that are valuable to the consumer. Something beyond screenshots and a widget. Err on the side of compassion. Just my two cents.



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