Dell Computers is important if for nothing else because it’s a multibillion dollar enterprise based in Central Texas. They’ve given us some cultural moments, too—what child of the nineties doesn’t remember the “Dude, you’re getting a Dell” guy? But when it comes to Michael Dell’s stature in the tech world, he’s not exactly Steve Jobs.
Granted, few are. Jobs has been the subject of not one, not two, but three biopics in recent years. (Plus a recent documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Alex Gibney.) He’s been portrayed onscreen by Michael Fassbender (in Danny Boyle’s forthcoming Steve Jobs), Ashton Kutcher (in 2013’s Jobs), and Justin Long (in iSteve—which, to be fair, was rushed to market by Funny Or Die just to beat Jobs to the punch). Jobs’s cultural influence looms large, from the massive events showcasing new technologies to his daily uniform of a black turtleneck to his famously prickly pronouncements about how his products should work. He introduced the smartphone, the tablet, and the mp3 player to mass audiences, and made technology sexy in a way that his contemporaries never could.
Michael Dell and his company are certainly not as sexy as Jobs and Apple. And the staff at Conan took some shots at Round Rock’s benefactor ahead of the release of Steve Jobs. Here’s the parody trailer for a film called Michael Dell:
The Conan sketch is funny stuff (“Why would the ‘E’ be like that?” a designer asks Dell as he tweaks the company’s logo. “I dunno,” Dell responds. “Doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.”) but it really tells us about Jobs and the mythology that surrounds him more than anything about Dell. The joke about the logo design is only funny because it’s become part of the cultural discourse that Jobs’s determination to be hands-on in every decision at Apple is part of what made him great. A keynote in which Dell’s big announcement is that there’s no new information is a reflection of Apple’s constant hype cycle rather than an indictment of any other company’s failure to innovate. (Meanwhile, the slogan for the slightly updated iPhone 6s is “the only thing that’s changed is everything.” See what we mean by hype circle?) The things Jobs did were weird, and so it’s funny to imagine another company’s CEO doing them.
In other words, Michael Dell’s feelings are probably intact despite seeing himself displayed as a bumbling oaf on Conan. But one thing that the sketch gets right is that the Dells of the world—that is, the companies whose business models are still predicated on selling people PCs—do look a bit like dinosaurs in 2015. Dell’s profits fell 72 percent from 2012 to 2013, a staggering loss that reflected the waning demand for PCs.
That decline is less sharp now than it was then—the PC market has already cratered, so the drops are more incremental now. All things considered, Dell is actually weathering it better now than many competitors—overall, PC sales declined by 9.4 percent over the past year, but Dell’s own sales only dropped by 4.9 percent, which suggests that they’re doing something right.
But ultimately, that’s the other joke in the Conan sketch. There was a time in the past couple of decades when the names “Michael Dell” and “Steve Jobs” both referred to innovative people building businesses with an eye toward the future. Jobs may be gone, but his name, and the mythos that’s only grown around him since his death, remain aspirational for anyone looking to be relevant and valuable in the tech world in 2015 and beyond. Up against the popular mythology of Steve Jobs, Michael Dell—who runs a fairly successful company that still shops a whole lot of computers—looks like a bumbling goofball in a bad wig on late night television.