The 5 Big Questions Dell Will Have To Answer To Survive

On Tuesday, Dell faced Wall Street analysts for what could be the last time, as Michael Dell and a collection of investors prepare to take the company private. And though Dell Inc. reportedly exceeded Wall Street's expectations, the results were disappointing overall. And in some ways, that's a good thing.

Dell revenues fell 11% to $14.3 billion. Profits were down, too: 31% to $534 million. Dell's consumer business fell by a whopping 24% to $2.8 billion; The slogan "Dude, you're getting a Dell" is now a distant memory.

The earnings call is a unique event in American business; although chief executives occasionally deign to hear questions from business reporters, rarely do they sit down with their upper management and submit to questions about their past and future financial and operational performance. Calls following quarters in which a business dramatically exceeds expectations, taking a drink each time an analyst congratulates execs ("Great quarter, guys!") will usually result in a long nap under one's desk.

After a lousy quarter, on the other hand, analysts feel unusually liberated to ask the pointed questions that should always be asked. And - hurray! - some of them did their jobs on Tuesday.

Here are the five questions that Dell will need to answer going forward:

1. Does Dell Belong In The PC Market?

In many ways, this is the same question that Hewlett-Packard faced in the wake of Leo Apotheker's decision to shop the PC business, Meg Whitman's decision to retain it, and then the ultimate reorganization into a combined printer/PC business. With very little room for adding value besides bundling a printer with a PC, adding the crapware software that users hate, and striking out into relatively untested waters such as ultraportables and tablets, the answer seems to be: "Yes, but barely."

Dell's strengths are its XPS tier and its Latitude line of business PCs. But as Dell chief financial officer Brian Gladden noted, the growth continues to be in tablets and in the low-value desktop and notebook space - both areas where Dell, seeking higher profits, has consciously avoided.

2. Is There An Opportunity To Refresh Older Corporate PCs?

Yes, definitely. And that's the primary reason Dell won't bail out of the PC market any time soon - it has established longstanding ties with corporate America. This was one of the most telling quotes of the call:

"I think that’s really tough to get at, but the data that we’ve seen would suggest there’s still somewhere in the range of 40% of the corporate installed base for PCs that is XP or Vista that needs to be upgraded," Gladden said. "So that’s, I think, pretty consistent with the data that we see for our installed base, and for what we hear from our corporate customers."

Corporate IT departments rarely, if ever, update a PC operating system without refreshing the hardware, too. Microsoft may have to worry about corporate customers turning to Windows 7 rather than 8, but Dell doesn't care either way. And with support ending for Windows XP in April 2014, Dell knows there's a windfall ahead.

"All the data that we’ve seen, all the conversations we’ve had with customers, would lead us to believe that there’s still a significant refresh activity that has to happen in the next 12-14 months," Gladden said.

3. Is BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) The Answer?

Yes. Or it was in December, when Michael Dell said exactly that

"And in the customer conversations that we’ve been having, the interest in Windows 8 is quite high, even with commercial customers, who would normally wait a few releases to adopt the new versions," Dell said. "What we’re seeing here is really an immediate need, because CIOs are worried about the ramifications of a BYOD world. With Windows 8 products... we’re pleased with the incredible experience that they expect, while you get the security and versatility and reliability that your enterprise really requires."

Since then, Microsoft has reported terrific Windows 8 numbers, although there has been some suspicion that the company hid behind previouslysold Windows 8 licenses. Still, Dell and the rest of the PC industry will certainly help try and make Windows 8 a success. Ultimately, however, Michael Dell has bet his farm on Windows, while other hardware makers, like Samsung, have diversified into Android and phones. Time will tell who made the right choice.

4.) Will Server Customers Keep Buying From Dell, Or Roll Their Own?

If you're not following the datacenter market that runs the cloud services we use and love, you're may be unaware that Facebook has pioneered an industry-wide program called Open Compute, which publishes detailed specifications on building your own servers via components from no-name manufacturers. Facebook recently said that a major European datacenter would be constructed entirely from these "white box" servers, and companies like Rackspace have also signed on.

Revenue-wise, Dell’s Server and Networking Business unit grew 11% in the last quarter, to $9.3 billion. But ISI Group's Brian Marshall asked one of the key questions: given the Open Compute model, will the trend continue? Gladden waved off the question.

"It is relatively isolated to a few number of large-scale customers who can make the economics work, and given that, we’re still seeing strong growth in that business, and significant opportunities to continue to grow the hyperscale business," Gladden said. "So I don’t think it’s a new dynamic."

Gladden's right; most companies are not going to exert the time and effort to design their own servers, Open Compute or no. But over time, this may eat into the server businesses of Dell and others.

5.) What Effects Will Virtualization, Consolidation and the Cloud Have On Servers?

Virtualization, where a number of "virtual servers" can share computing resources, helps effectively consume underutilized servers, especially older hardware. Some of the older hardware can be retired, as data centers "consolidate" their hardware and run virtual machines on top of them to maximize their use. At the same time, as more cloud services are deployed, the number of servers they require goes up. Unfortunately, analysts have reported that the number of servers sold has flattened - the trends of consolidation and virtualization are holding down sales, and revenues are actually decreasing.

For a long time, notebooks became the escape route out of the quicksand of commoditization that has dragged the industry down. Then servers were the answer. Now, they're apparently sinking into the mud, too.

Dell may in fact continue to provide updates to Wall Street as it goes private; it hinted as much when it talked about a fiscal first-quarter earnings release. But as the company moves into the financial shadows, away from public scrutiny, it did not provide any guidance for the future. One can wonder whether its outlook is equally cloudy.