Dell’s Shaky Entry Into the Laptop Market

Dell Turbo 325N Notebook Computer produced in 1985


Dell Turbo 325N Notebook Computer produced in 1985


I started my Dell journey back in the early ’90s. The laptops all looked like this beast above. Notice the real WTF design issue? Nobody got it, except for Apple. And when Apple’s MacBook was released, Dell saw the light and hired the engineer/designer from Apple, and Dell’s first Latitude laptop was born. John Medica – RIP.



Dell copied the Apple trackball, but couldn’t quite get the design to shine. Dell has never been a design leader or a deep thinker in innovation, preferring to copy other successful products. Michael’s obsession with early Apple design and products is the stuff that legend is made of. I’m gonna spin one for you now.

I was with an advertising agency in Austin, Texas doing almost all of Dell’s print advertising.


Early Dell print ad


I had a great art director who taught me how to kern the fk out of those headlines. It was Quark Express vs. Pagemaker time. And Dell’s laptop business was out of the gate.

Apple vs Dell The Early Rounds

Dell’s laptop did not contain any multimedia capabilities. Sound and motion were not really a thing yet on computers. Apple, however, built sound and cd-rom drives into the earliest laptops. And their Developer Program delivered the coolest multimedia CD-Rom of goodies and show pieces. We were a design shop, so most of us were using Macs. (That alone is funny. Dell ads were being designed on a Mac. More on that later.)

The agency was delivering Dell a complete system for the remote salesforce. Mainly PowerPoint sales decks, excel helpers with pricing formulas, and product brochures. One afternoon, Kenny, was passing in the hall past my office while I was showing one of my teammates the Apple Developer CD-Rom. He popped in. “What’s this?”

A few months later, I was pitching the prototype of what would become Dell Multimedia Works, or DMW in the red leather boardroom on the top floor of Dell’s offices in the Arboretum. I was clicking through a demo of the new interactive sales-enablement tool for Michael’s executive team. About midway through my demo, a woman asked, “You’ve got a Mac under the table, don’t you?”

I froze. (fk)

“Um, well, the prototype…” I started.

“It’s okay, I get it. My kids love their Macs. I just wanted to know.”

“Yes. It’s a Mac.”

Dell Multimedia Works - DMW - Sicola Martin Interactive

My company got the gig and my new “interactive agency” within the print agency was started. I founded SicolaMartin Interactive with an outside developer, Rick, and a few brave souls, like my creative director, who was willing to take a bet that we could pull this Dell project off. I got my first dedicated art director. I got my office upgraded from cube to door. And we busted ass to deliver v.1 of DMW just in time for the annual sales gathering in Austin.

On big ah-ha moment, the Dell Latitude XP did not come with a CD-Rom drive or speakers. Our laptops were connected to a 1.5-speed Sony cd-rom drive and some crappy external “multimedia” speakers. The project was a hit. And over the next few months, the interactive group was rolling in high cotton. Stories of laptop demos using DMW going so well, partially because no one had ever seen a PC laptop that could sing and dance.

Dell’s Annual VIP Conference at Comdex

That January, I was in Vegas for Dell’s Comdex show. I was the architect of an interactive presentation for Michael’s keynote address to the VIPs. Everybody wanted to see rotating logos and graphics now. We delivered.

When the presentation was over, Mr. Dell opened the floor up for Q and A. After a few questions, I raised my hand. Only my boss knew who I was. “When will Dell begin including cd-roms and speakers to their laptops?” I asked. Cheeky mfkr.

“The corporate client does not need multimedia. When our customers begin asking for those features, we will be happy to put them in.”

Um, yeah. So, the next Latitude had both a cd-rom and built-in speakers. And the next version of DMW was even more impressive. And, much easier to carry around. Success abounded. And with DMW 2.5 (a fix for a product lineup change) Dell decided they no longer needed our sales enablement tool. Maybe they figured they could do it themselves.

By Then, The Internet

About this time, Mosaic showed the world what the WWW would look like with pictures. The visual internet was born. I had just hired an IT director from the nearby university, and he was already quite WWW savvy. I remember the very first time I heard the term, “world wide web.” I was driving a VW convertible to a Joe Jackson concert at the Backyard, an outdoor venue that is now a huge outdoor shopping mall.

I was playing loud music and enjoying the top-down weather. Ben, my IT guy, said “Yadda yadda, world wide web.”

I turned down the music.

“What did you say?

“World Wide Web?” he asked.

“Yeah, that…”

Next up, my group, now “agency of record” for Dell’s print and interactive projects, was asked to design and build version 1. Dell was handing us the keys to design a unified website from the siloed and shoddy website they had cobbled together with IT. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And there we were. I was about 23 years old.

I’d been reading MultiMedia Magazine (sort of like Wired before Wired, and for business) and had some ideas to bring to the discussion. Apple’s eWorld was just happening, and they used a map of a neighborhood.


apple's eWorld online community


When we began designing our dream for Dell v1, I used a similar approach, but we used planets and our solar system. In this brainstorming meeting, before we put the final pitch together for Dell’s executive leadership, I had a planet in the Dell constellation labeled “e-commerce.”

“What’s that?” Tom Sicola, asked.

“It’s the idea that people are going to use the web to buy stuff.”

“You mean, put their credit cards in and pay for a $3,000 laptop?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s not going to happen. Let’s erase that one, and focus our attention on stuff they will believe.”

One year later, despite the removal of planet e-comm, Dell became the largest online retailer on the planet. We took little credit for the idea. But inside, I knew, I still know, I had an idea about where this internet thing was headed.

A big moment in history. It’s now a feature on my LinkedIn page. The two Dell projects: 1. DMW and 2. version 1 - SicolaMartin Interactive


I’m not going to put those on my tombstone, but they were historical wins. Big wins.

SicolaMartin Interactive went on to hire a CMO, Pete Hayes, who would be my boss, along with seven other full-time staffers. We used DMW to sell many more integrated sales enablement tools. It was the boom town for CD-Roms and positioned our interactive agency well to get internet projects as companies realized they needed a presence on the world wide web.

I’ve got some new innovative projects, but I’m not at liberty to reveal them just yet. Stay tuned on LinkedIn!

An interesting note about lying: I met a gentleman a number of years ago who claimed to be one of the project leads for DMW. I was like, “What? I’ve never heard of your name. How did *you* work on DMW?” I disconnected with him on LinkedIn. He had no answer. 

John McElhenney — let’s connect online
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See also:

Please check out a few of my books on AMAZON

Especially this one, about living a creative life of intention and joy. No mention of tv or pharma




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