WcW014: It’s not all bright lights and glamour

July 23, 2008

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© Ron Chapple Studios | Dreamstime.com

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Web Conferencing Week

So, if this were really a weekly feature, we’d be on number 052 or something, and this is only number 14. Thus, why not two in a row?

The poor sap fallen asleep over his laptop in front of his desktop PC in the illustration doesn’t resemble yr (justifiably) humble svt in the slightest, but it’s what I’ll look like in a few hours.

No, I won’t suddenly get 35 years younger, grow back a lot of very dark hair and become vaguely Asian.

But, I’m working very late tonight, and very early in the morning. Sigh.

As I’ve often noted in this space, I support the enterprise web conferencing application from an end-user perspective. A vendor once described me most flatteringly as the manager of the end user experience for my technology.

So, in addition to working with the other, more technical, members of the team (server administrators and system architects); developing curriculum and reference materials; teaching nearly 4,000 fellow employees in the past six years to use web conferences  by attending my training web conferences; besides all that, I’m the guy who gets the call when users have critical conferences that require my professional expertise.

Got the call a few weeks ago: we’re doing an important meeting three times, because the sun never sets on our global enterprise: once for the Asia-Pacific region, once for Europe and once for the Western Hemisphere. 8amCEST, 1pmCEST, 6pmCEST. We’ve had trouble with the web conferencing tool in the past, please help.

I endeavor to honor requests like this. But, of course, I’m sitting in the U.S. Central time zone.

8amCEST (Central European Summer Time) in, yes, central Europe, the origin of the meetings, translates to 1amCDT (U.S. Central Daylight Time).

Read the rest of this entry »


mm403: Blast from the Past! No. 26

June 7, 2008

MUDGE’s Musings

We embark this weekend on a business trip to a conference in Boston. As conferences usually take up a great deal of uptime, without the downtime associated with a normal schedule, we will probably cover many of our daily blogging deadlines with Blasts from the Past!

The conference itself, designed to illuminate the social networking phenomena in the context of business and corporate conduct, may provide the opportunity to blog, as blogging in the corporate environment is one of its key topics. So we may be able to mix business interests and responsibilities with our avocation in this space. Should be interesting!

There’s most read, and then there’s favorite. This is a post which yr (justifiably) humble svt is, regrettably, but not regretfully, not at all humble about.

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Blast from the Past!

A post we really, really loved to write, and read, and re-read…

From last summer, originally posted September 10, 2007 and originally titled “China – Two interesting aspects”.

MUDGE’S Musings

China is always in the news. Two stories from the past few days illuminate why in some interesting ways.

First, from the LA Times, a look at how we have become victim’s of our unlimited appetite for everyday low prices.

latimes_thumb2

Analysts expect prices in the U.S. to creep up as safety standards are reevaluated. Buyers and retailers may share the impact.

By Don Lee and Abigail Goldman
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
September 9, 2007

SHANGHAI — Get ready for a new Chinese export: higher prices.

For years, American consumers have enjoyed falling prices for goods made in China thanks to relentless cost cutting by retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target.

But the spate of product recalls in recent months — Mattel announced another last week — has exposed deep fault lines in Chinese manufacturing. Manufacturers and analysts say some of the quality breakdowns are a result of financially strapped factories substituting materials or taking other shortcuts to cover higher operating costs.

Now, retailers that had largely dismissed Chinese suppliers’ complaints about the soaring cost of wages, energy and raw materials are preparing to pay manufacturers more to ensure better quality. By doing so, they hope to prevent recalls that hurt their bottom lines and reputations. But those added costs — on a host of items that include toys and frozen fish — mean either lower profits for retailers or higher prices for consumers.

“For American consumers, this big China sale over the last 20 years is over,” said Andy Xie, former Asia economist for Morgan Stanley, who works independently in Shanghai. “China’s cost is going up. They need to get used to it.”

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mm350: Blast from the past No. 9

April 17, 2008

MUDGE’s Musings

The MUDGE family is on vacation this week. We don’t know that we’ll be able to restrain ourselves from blogging during the entire span, after all the grandMUDGElets go to bed pretty early, but without access to our files, and WindowsLiveWriter, for this week only, when we feel that irresistible urge to blog, we’ll treat blogging like we do (sigh) exercise: we’ll just lie down until the feeling goes away.

But, the Prime Directive of Blogging reads: Thou Shalt Blog Daily! So shalt we.

There’s most read, and then there’s favorite. This is a post which yr (justifiably) humble svt is, regrettably, but not regretfully, not at all humble about.

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Blast from the Past!

A post we really, really loved to write, and read, and re-read…

From our very earliest days, originally posted July 14, 2007.

mm067: By the way, I do earn a living!

I realize that it has been some time since I broached the topic of my career, and what I do to afford the leisure to pursue this blogging thing. Lot’s of Bloomberg here; just not in this post, sorry!

Faithful reader will remember that what I do is web conferencing, an increasingly useful tool that should be adopted by more and more corporate entities due to its transformative capabilities.

My employer in the Heart of Corporate America (HCA) is a grand old conservative organization, proud of its financial performance measured over generations (a quarterly dividend paid without interruption since before my late father was born!). It seldom moves quickly where infrastructure technology is concerned, rightfully (I admit with admiration and affection that I have come to see it as rightfully) expending whatever fleet instincts it possesses towards the tooth of its tiger, not its tail.

Which is a long explanation for the fact that HCA has only been using web conferencing for a few years, mainly the five-plus years that I have been there. That’s an interesting tale. I found myself “at liberty” after my previous employer, having entered into a “merger of equals” disappeared utterly, as far as most of its human capital is concerned.

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mm260: The other oil shock

January 20, 2008

MUDGE’S Musings

We’ve had several occasions in this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©

Fuel from Food: Just a bad idea all around

mm233: Corn in the news – and not just in Iowa!
mm194: Friedman: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
mm193: Fuel without oil, or corn
mm084: Food versus fools – Salon.com
mm053: The case for turning crops into fuel – Saletan
mm015: Welcomed back to the guild

…to consider the growth of the use of traditional food crops to create alternative fuel stocks – ethanol from corn is the U.S. wrongheaded approach.

Such is the triumph of our interconnected world that bad ideas from the U.S. are reproduced just as predictably as are many of our other famous cultural artifacts: rock and roll, blue jeans, cellular telephones.

January 19th’s NYTimes brings to our attention the food crisis in Asia caused by conversion of food crops to petroleum substitutes.

nytimes

A New, Global Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories

By KEITH BRADSHER | Published: January 19, 2008

KUANTAN, Malaysia — Rising prices for cooking oil are forcing residents of Asia’s largest slum, in Mumbai, India, to ration every drop. Bakeries in the United States are fretting over higher shortening costs. And here in Malaysia, brand-new factories built to convert vegetable oil into diesel sit idle, their owners unable to afford the raw material.

Cooking oil? A cheap commodity in the west. What’s the big deal?

Cooking oil may seem a trifling expense in the West. But in the developing world, cooking oil is an important source of calories and represents one of the biggest cash outlays for poor families, which grow much of their own food but have to buy oil in which to cook it.

The focus of this story is on palm oil, until recently rather disreputable nutritionally here, but back in favor as an option to trans fats, increasingly seen as unhealthy, and even legislated against in trendy places like New York City.

Now, everyone everywhere wants palm oil. But as petroleum prices rise, and vegetable based oils are viewed as attractive components of biodiesel, palm oil is suddenly in short supply, and skyrocketing in price.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

An Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories – New York Times

The interconnectedness of the world never fails to astonish. In this instance, the result isn’t merely inconveniently high prices for traditionally low-cost commodities, it’s starvation in Asian slums.

Stranger yet the instructive example of the palm oil refinery in Malaysia, built alongside sizable palm forests, prepared to convert palm oil to biodiesel. Now frantically attempting to come up with a new plan, as its machinery was idled because the demand for palm oil as food has ratcheted up its price beyond economical use as a feedstock for mere fuel.

In the rush to pander to Midwest growers of corn and soybeans by subsidizing the use of ethanol for fuel; in the rush to protect U.S. citizens from the unhealthy effects of oil their potatoes are fried in; we initiate chains of events that results in a crisis of shortages and starvation on the other side of the globe.

Farmers, always the hardest working and often the least compensated link of the food chain, naturally seek to get the highest price possible for their output, and biofuel has supercharged demand, thus prices are higher.

Seems clear that in the rush to embrace biofuels the law of unintended consequences has landed square into the battered cooking pots of Mumbai.

Can’t cook the week’s scrap of mutton with unintended consequences.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm257: The R-Word – Not that racy television show…

January 17, 2008

MUDGE’S Musings

On more and more minds, and lips, lately is that dreaded R-Word, recession.

First some news that we won’t have to work too awfully hard to relate to the topic at hand.

1. A critical gear in the export engine gets stripped

The aerospace competition between Europe’s Airbus and the U.S.’s Boeing has been hard-fought (think: Saturday-night saloon, brass-knuckles style) commercial dueling of a classic nature.

Boeing, complacent after lucrative decades owning global airline sales was embarrassed when upstart Airbus, an amalgam of several European aerospace firms unable individually to compete with the Boeing colossus began to outsell the arrogant giant.

Thus it was with no small satisfaction that Boeing watched Airbus announce delay after delay delivering its latest product, the immense 600-passenger A380, finally released to its first customers late in 2007.

Now, the shoe is on the other foot, as Boeing yesterday was forced to admit that its latest product, the new-age, environmentally sensitive 787 Dreamliner, has encountered delivery glitches of its own, the impact of which will push deliveries back to 2009.

Here’s the word from Boeing’s home-town paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (sorry, Chicago Tribune, but Boeing’s head may have relocated, but its heart remains in Washington State).

seattlepi

Boeing explains new 787 delay

Company ‘underestimated’ time to finish partners’ work

By JAMES WALLACE
P-I AEROSPACE REPORTER

It was 90 days ago Wednesday that Boeing troubleshooter Pat Shanahan took over the 787 program after then-Dreamliner boss Mike Bair was sacked.

A week earlier, The Boeing Co. had announced an embarrassing six-month delay, with the first Dreamliner deliveries to airlines slipping from May until the end of 2008.

Boeing believed at the time that it would be able to complete work on the first plane in its Everett factory and have it flying by the end of March. It is the first of six that will be needed for the flight test program before the 787 can be certified by regulators to carry passengers.

The story rings true enough; the 787 is a new aircraft, being assembled a new way.

The 787 represents a new way of building airplanes for Boeing, which turned over most of the manufacturing and assembly work to key partners in Italy, Japan and elsewhere in the United States.

But those partners were unable to complete a significant amount of work before the unfinished sections of the first of six test-flight planes arrived in Everett for final assembly. Boeing has struggled to catch up on all this “travel” work.

Typical complexity issues, perfectly understandable, if disappointing.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Boeing explains new 787 delay

It will take a more adept macroeconomist than yr (justifiably) humble svt (not a very high bar to scale either) to tell us the effect of this delivery delay on the economy. Exports are an important piece of the economic pie, and Boeing a critical element of that slice.

Boeing sneezes, and we all should start looking around for our Nyquil.

2. Okay, it’s a recession. Which candidate makes the most sense?

There’s a presidential election campaign going on, you may have noticed.

NYTimes’ Paul Krugman, one of our favorite economic analysts, takes a look at their positions. Voters are getting nervous; tell us you know how to make us feel better:

nytimes

Responding to Recession

By Paul Krugman | Published: January 14, 2008

Suddenly, the economic consensus seems to be that the implosion of the housing market will indeed push the U.S. economy into a recession, and that it’s quite possible that we’re already in one. As a result, over the next few weeks we’ll be hearing a lot about plans for economic stimulus.

Since this is an election year, the debate over how to stimulate the economy is inevitably tied up with politics. And here’s a modest suggestion for political reporters. Instead of trying to divine the candidates’ characters by scrutinizing their tone of voice and facial expressions, why not pay attention to what they say about economic policy?

In fact, recent statements by the candidates and their surrogates about the economy are quite revealing.

And he proceeds to get to the heart of each candidate’s economic sound bites.

  • McCain: ruefully admits he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know about the economy
  • Giuliani: his cure, a huge tax cut, isn’t
  • Huckabee: just wrong
  • Romney: who just might know something, won’t say anything, fearing to offend
  • Edwards: driving the agenda with a clearly designed policy
  • Clinton: following suit
  • Obama: after an awkward false start, now has a plan, although less progressive than the other leading Dems

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Responding to Recession – New York Times

Can’t help but wonder what Michael Bloomberg thinks… Mike, Mr. self-made billionaire, what get’s us out of our funk, fast?

3. Recession: Bitter but necessary medicine?

Another of MUDGE’s favorite economists, Daniel Gross of Slate, weighs in on our looming distress, and how it could provide a wake-up call to U.S. business:

slate

The Good News About the Recession

Maybe it will finally teach Americans how to compete globally.
By Daniel Gross | Posted Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008, at 11:53 AM ET

House for saleA sign of the housing slump

A recession may be upon us, which would mean fewer jobs, declining tax revenues, and sinking consumer confidence.

But for some (congenital Bush-bashers, the Irvine Housing Blog, critics of rampant consumerism), the parade of bad news is an occasion for schadenfreude….

(By the way, schadenfreude is defined thusly. Admit it, you always wanted to know but never bothered to look it up. Sequitur Service© at your service!)

… They enjoy seeing inhabitants of the formerly high-flying sectors that got us into the mess—real estate and Wall Street—being laid low. Others hold out hope that a recession will iron out distortions in the housing market, thus allowing them to move into previously unaffordable neighborhoods. Some econo-fretters hold out hope that reduced imports and the weaker dollar—both likely byproducts of a recession—will help close the trade deficit. And a few killjoys believe recessions can be morally uplifting. “High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life,” as Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon put it in the disastrous aftermath of the 1929 crash and ensuing Depression. Not for him stimulus packages and enhanced unemployment benefits. “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” (Thanks in part to such comments, voters liquidated Republicans for a generation.)

With the exception of a few gleaming stars, like our friends Boeing, U.S. companies have been woefully ineffective at selling to global markets.

The world is running away from us. The volume of global trade in merchandise has been increasing rapidly. And it’s not just the United States importing goods from China. It’s China importing natural resources from everywhere and building infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa, sub-Saharan Africa buying oil from the Persian Gulf, Dubai investors purchasing Indian real estate, Indian builders buying German engineering products and services, and German engineers buying toys made in China. With each passing day, an increasing number of transactions in the global marketplace do not involve the United States. We’re still a powerful engine. But the world’s economy now has a set of auxiliary motors.

We know we’ve been floundering; the way out may well be to find business leaders with global skillsets.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

The good news about the recession. – By Daniel Gross – Slate Magazine

It’s going to be an uphill fight. We’ve earned our way into this economic distress: outsourcing our jobs instead of figuring out how to become competitive; living high on borrowed money that is now coming due big time; wasting geopolitical and real capital, and thousands of young American lives, on a poorly designed, inadequately executed, military misadventure in Iraq.

The R-Word

We hope you enjoyed this week’s three-part episode, and hope to heaven that we don’t have to do run too many more of them!

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm223: Pigs, bees, fish — the dangerous ways we set our table

December 16, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

The lavish supplies of cheap food we take for granted in the U.S. are far more costly than we’ve understood. Two stories in NYTimes this weekend provide disturbing evidence on several fronts. Michael Pollan authored the first, where he analyzed a pair of stories.

Staph infection and pig farms

The incursion of staph infection into the world at large from the general confinement of hospitals is distressing. In fact,

MRSA, the very scary antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria … is now killing more Americans each year than AIDS — 100,000 infections leading to 19,000 deaths in 2005, according to estimates in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

One formerly understood that staph has mutated to develop resistance to antibiotics due to the overuse of antibiotics in the hospital setting, and thus is difficult to combat there. The victims of the resistant infections are generally the weak and elderly patients.

Now, there is disturbing evidence that the massive use of antibiotics in the ubiquitous ginormous feedlots might be causing staph to mutate outside hospitals.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that at least 70 percent of the antibiotics used in America are fed to animals living on factory farms. Raising vast numbers of pigs or chickens or cattle in close and filthy confinement simply would not be possible without the routine feeding of antibiotics to keep the animals from dying of infectious diseases. That the antibiotics speed up the animals’ growth also commends their use to industrial agriculture, but the crucial fact is that without these pharmaceuticals, meat production practiced on the scale and with the intensity we practice it could not be sustained for months, let alone decades.

This is all still guesswork on the part of researchers, as neither the FDA nor the livestock industry seems that interested in examining the issue.

Scientists have not established that any of the strains of MRSA presently killing Americans originated on factory farms. But given the rising public alarm about MRSA and the widespread use on these farms of precisely the class of antibiotics to which these microbes have acquired resistance, you would think our public-health authorities would be all over it. Apparently not. When, in August, the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition asked the Food and Drug Administration what the agency was doing about the problem of MRSA in livestock, the agency had little to say. Earlier this month, though, the F.D.A. indicated that it may begin a pilot screening program with the C.D.C.

The implication for the long-term costs of the inexpensive meat the world (except of course the 20% who are starving) takes for granted if a relationship is established between MRSA and CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation, a new acronym for MUDGE) is definitely disturbing. As is, of course, the fact that MRSA has overtaken AIDS as a killer in the U.S.

Bees, again

This space has taken some note over the past several months of the honeybee story (here, here and here): the bees have disappeared; do we really know why? Michael Pollan has some significant observations, and relates the issues with the bees to that of the pigs.

The second story is about honeybees, which have endured their own mysterious epidemic this past year. Colony Collapse Disorder was first identified in 2006, when a Pennsylvanian beekeeper noticed that his bees were disappearing — going out on foraging expeditions in the morning never to return. Within months, beekeepers in 24 states were reporting losses of between 20 percent and 80 percent of their bees, in some cases virtually overnight. Entomologists have yet to identify the culprit, but suspects include a virus, agricultural pesticides and a parasitic mite. (Media reports that genetically modified crops or cellphone towers might be responsible have been discounted.) But whatever turns out to be the immediate cause of colony collapse, many entomologists believe some such disaster was waiting to happen: the lifestyle of the modern honeybee leaves the insects so stressed out and their immune systems so compromised that, much like livestock on factory farms, they’ve become vulnerable to whatever new infectious agent happens to come along.

Due to the massive scale of agriculture in California, source of so much of the food grown in this country, the state has, by necessity, become an importer of itinerant bees.

In 2005 the demand for honeybees in California had so far outstripped supply that the U.S.D.A. approved the importation of bees from Australia. These bees get off a 747 at SFO and travel by truck to the Central Valley, where they get to work pollinating almond flowers — and mingling with bees arriving from every corner of America. As one beekeeper put it to Singeli Agnew in The San Francisco Chronicle, California’s almond orchards have become “one big brothel” — a place where each February bees swap microbes and parasites from all over the country and the world before returning home bearing whatever pathogens they may have picked up. Add to this their routine exposure to agricultural pesticides and you have a bee population ripe for an epidemic national in scope.

So, pigs and bees have become industrialized. The law of unintended consequences has gone to work, also.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Michael Pollan – Agriculture – Disease Resistant Staph – Concentrated Animal Feed Operations – Sustainability – New York Times

a disturbing Chinese fish story

The final element of today’s food fright is also a Times story.

In China, Farming Fish in Toxic Waters

By DAVID BARBOZA

FUQING, China — Here in southern China, beneath the looming mountains of Fujian Province, lie dozens of enormous ponds filled with murky brown water and teeming with eels, shrimp and tilapia, much of it destined for markets in Japan and the West.

Fuqing is one of the centers of a booming industry that over two decades has transformed this country into the biggest producer and exporter of seafood in the world, and the fastest-growing supplier to the United States.

But that growth is threatened by the two most glaring environmental weaknesses in China: acute water shortages and water supplies contaminated by sewage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff that includes pesticides. The fish farms, in turn, are discharging wastewater that further pollutes the water supply.

“Our waters here are filthy,” said Ye Chao, an eel and shrimp farmer who has 20 giant ponds in western Fuqing. “There are simply too many aquaculture farms in this area. They’re all discharging water here, fouling up other farms.”

Farmers have coped with the toxic waters by mixing illegal veterinary drugs and pesticides into fish feed, which helps keep their stocks alive yet leaves poisonous and carcinogenic residues in seafood, posing health threats to consumers.

Okay, let me count: eels, shrimp, tilapia, sewage, industrial waste, agricultural runoff including pesticides, veterinary drugs and pesticides. The food we want seems swamped by all the stuff we want no part of, but we don’t get to choose. After all,

Environmental problems plaguing seafood would appear to be a bad omen for the industry. But with fish stocks in the oceans steadily declining and global demand for seafood soaring, farmed seafood, or aquaculture, is the future. And no country does more of it than China, which produced about 115 billion pounds of seafood last year.

China produces about 70 percent of the farmed fish in the world, harvested at thousands of giant factory-style farms that extend along the entire eastern seaboard of the country. Farmers mass-produce seafood just offshore, but mostly on land, and in lakes, ponds, rivers and reservoirs, or in huge rectangular fish ponds dug into the earth.

The U.S. imports 80% of its fish; the Chinese produces 70% of the world’s supply of farmed fish. China is huge, ambitious, and often very primitive in its safety surveillance. This is an ugly combination.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

In China, Farming Fish in Toxic Waters – New York Times

Let’s review:

  1. Some scientists are convinced that pig and other livestock agriculture can kill us, because the overuse of antibiotics in CAFO settings could cause the mutation of antibiotic resistant Staphylococcus bacteria.
  2. Honeybees have been worked so hard in the service of agribusiness that some scientists believe that the stress made them less resistant to bee-killing viruses and parasites.
  3. Chinese aquaculture (a wetter form of agribusiness) is producing massive quantities — the overwhelming majority of the globe’s farmed product — of fish contaminated by sewage, industrial waste, agricultural runoff and veterinary drugs and pesticides.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, it’s not what you pay for food, but what it costs you that counts. I don’t think that we can afford inexpensive food.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm214: Dell faces the music — it’s a trend!

December 6, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Dell Computer is the PC company one loves to hate. They make competent products. MUDGE uses three (count ’em, three!) of them regularly at work, actually, and has no complaints, other than those related to a corporate bean counters’ hardware refresh policy that keeps pushing back to indefinity (new coinage, if it is, covered under this site’s Creative Commons license). A five year old laptop is dark ages stuff, but I don’t blame Dell.

Years ago, Dell was an extraordinary success story. Everyone knows it: the college sophomore who figured out before anyone else how to commoditize an entire industry, and made it work by ruthlessly weeding fat out of the supply chain (i.e., source in Asia) and cutting out an entire swath of the retail distribution channel through direct to consumer telephone and then on-line sales.

Well the world has caught up, and finally, very late in this observer’s opinion, Dell has begun to make moves toward a more conventional retail selling strategy.

Dell Moves Further From Direct Sales

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | Published: December 6, 2007

DALLAS (AP) — Dell is venturing further from its direct-to-consumer sales model and will start selling computers at Best Buy stores in January.

The companies said Thursday that Best Buy Co. will sell Dell’s XPS and Inspiron notebook and desktop computers at more than 900 stores.

Dell built its business around selling personal computers directly to customers, but it has been cutting deals with retailers as growth of PC sales slowed. The Round Rock, Texas-based company lost its spot as the world’s No. 1 computer maker to Hewlett-Packard Co. late last year, and HP has stretched its lead since then.

Of course, this change of course smacks of hurry-up desperation, since as the story will note, they’ve missed the huge holiday selling season at Best Buy.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Dell Moves Further From Direct Sales – New York Times

So, MUDGE. One might ask, where does the hate come in?

Nearly seven months ago, in its very fledgling days, this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere© presented a cautionary tale that, I believe, sheds some light.

Allow us, if you will, to take you back in time to a place called Left-Handed Complement post no. mm006

Storyteller

I tell stories. This is not news to those who know me. They’ve heard all of them, many times, many too many times, before. That won’t stop me from telling them here. In fact, you are a whole new audience for my stories. I can already feel my spouse poking me, as she does about seven minutes into the latest retelling of most any episode.

Ouch. But, let’s tell the one I alluded to last post. We were coy, and called my former PC a “heck.” I don’t know why I’m being so squeamish in a venue no one at all is looking at, but we can make this tale more generic this way, because I’m sure many of you can share similar ones.

I am a software tinkerer. I am always tweaking, downloading, never leaving well enough alone. There’s never enough RAM, enough HD, a big enough monitor to handle all the stuff I try to do at one time. So far, that places me only in the 56th percentile of PC users, I’m sure. But, this was not a problem related to all of that tinkering. This was a fundamental incompatibility between my printer, a most useful multifunction model from my (and pretty much everyone’s) favorite printer company, and the BIOS in my PC. When I purchased the printer, a mainstream model, and found this incompatibility with my PC, also well in the mainstream (dude!), I was forced to download and install an earlier version of the BIOS, a scary process involving creating copy of the download on a floppy disk to install/boot from. Pretty ugly for mainstream, but not that odd for a few years ago.

One day something changed. Don’t remember anymore exactly what, but I was getting ugly results trying to print. So, into support hell for literally hours, beginning with the printer company. Thirty minutes of hold time, and a lengthy explanation later, and I was directed to the PC company. What seemed like hours later, but probably 45 minutes or so actual time, I reached a support person in what seemed like an ex-US location. Explaining took a great deal of time, and the advice received wasn’t making a lot of sense, but I stayed patient (this was a few years ago while I still had some, apparently) throughout the ordeal. And I do mean ordeal, between disconnections, being bounced back and forth between printer company and PC company, speaking near midnight with people thinking about lunch.

A most frustrating eight (eight!) hours, and the problem really wasn’t resolved. I was resolved however to change PC brands. Oddly, the printer support people, obviously located in that same part of the world, may have been better trained, or more responsive, because I remain today a committed customer of their products.

But I went out virtually the next day and bought a new PC (it was time, four years since the last purchase), from a different manufacturer altogether: a Sony Vaio desktop. Well regarded in the various reviews I found on-line, with a built-in audio/visual media reputation, known for respected laptops, and NOT a “heck.” Brought it home, and let it sit unopened in the box for a few days, waiting, I guess, for the weekend and a suitable block of time – migrating from one PC to the next is not lightly undertaken (unlike placing a support call, it turns out, even though the time commitment turned out to be roughly similar!).

So, Sunday afternoon, took my shiny new box out of its box, plugged it all together, turned it on, and …

Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Sigh. Don’t know what happened to it between factory and my desk, but it was, and I can hear Andy Sipowicz saying it, D.O.A.

Okay, what to do? First, I’ll call tech support. Sigh.

So I called, and very much to my surprise, navigated through a simple menu, waited virtually no time at all, and found myself talking to a well informed support person.

In Florida!

He said that he could get someone out to my house the next day, but suggested that the best bet would be to return it to the retailer for an immediate replacement, which I did.

Glass-half-empty man, my standard persona, would usually think: what a terrible choice. D.O.A. out of the box! Find another brand!

Glass-half-full man, carrying the scars from eight hours of recent tech support frustration, actually thought: D.O.A., but resolved pleasantly, immediately (although it required an extra round-trip schlep to the retailer), by a cheerful person working in Florida on a Sunday afternoon.

The replacement system has worked perfectly ever since, although it is starting to show its age (not enough real horsepower for Vista, though I’m not seriously contemplating that can of worms!). Until and unless something horrible happens with my Vaio RS620G or my dealings with Sony, I’m sticking with that brand. They deserve it.

The lesson seems obvious to me, and I’ve read in the 2½ years since this incident that my former brand has begun to rethink its outsourcing ways.

There’s more to the bottom line than the bottom line. It’s the quality of the beans to be counted, Mr. Green Eyeshade. Or else, there just might be fewer beans to count next quarter.

The kid does tell a story, doesn’t he?

Okay, you’ve figured out what brand “heck” represented in the story.

So it’s this observer’s opinion that Dell’s problems of late have not been due to their direct to consumer model suddenly becoming obsolete.

I dare say that on-line retail sales of all kinds, especially technical gear like computers, is at an all-time high. Gear-heads like yours truly love to itemize components of PCs down to the cubic feet per minute air movement specification of their cooling fans, although as PC penetration moves into the last hold-out households prepackaged units sold by slick marketers like Best Buy will definitely move the needle.

But the issue is, if they’re so good, how come they were passed up? Let’s face it, everybody buys their components in Asia; many now assemble complete boxes there. It’s this curmudgeon’s perception that as opposed to outsourced supply, outsourced support, an easily discernable difference, has gradually chased customers away.

It’s no secret that Dell has moved support for their business customer base back on-shore, in response to strongly stated dissatisfaction.

Consumers, though, making an individual purchase every 2-4 years don’t have the business marketplace’s traction with a manufacturer, but they will, as MUDGE has, eventually exercise the only control that individuals have in a capitalist economy: vote with their feet. Here’s a trade publication story from a couple of years ago that supports my analysis.

I so voted, and lots of folks must have joined me, leading to HP’s recent attainment of sales leadership in the market.

I believe that Dell’s reputation for indifferent consumer support practices is what caught up to them. Maybe Best Buy and their Geek Squad can help repair the reputation.

In a time when the venerable and mighty IBM brand on a PC is owned by a Chinese manufacturer called Lenovo, U.S. companies can’t afford to stumble.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE