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For Whom the Dell Tolls

Less than fifteen years ago, Dell computers were the hot desktop brand. In a rapidly growing market, Dell developed a unique business model which helped to price out competitors. By 2004, Dell had become the market leader in desktop computer sales. Business school case studies focused on Dell’s extraordinary success.

With this prominence, Dell found itself implicated in antitrust lawsuits brought by the FTC against Dell directly (1996), against Microsoft (1998), and most recently against Intel (2009).

Yet these antitrust lawsuits had little effect on the dynamic personal computer market. The FTC ‘s suits had the pretense of promoting competition – a measure that was unnecessary in an industry where competition is already fierce. Consider the graph above tracking the market share of various desktop brands since 1997. Note that even the industry leaders only comprise about 50% of the total market.

dellmarketshare 

Dell’s decline started when it failed to perpetuate its initial successes and respond to the changing market. As the New York Times wrote yesterday, Dell is currently embroiled in a lawsuit against Advanced Internet Technologies, which alleges that Dell knowingly sold defective computers in the mid-2000s.

This should serve as a reminder to the FTC. Before jumping to accuse businesses of anti-competitive conduct, they should remember to look at the state of the actual, thriving, competition. Corporations that seem abundantly successful today often self-destruct or fall prey to unanticipated market forces tomorrow. Competitors lie in wait to take advantage of any weakness. From the New York Times:

“Dell, as a company, was the model everyone focused on 10 years ago,” said David B. Yoffie, a professor of international business administration at Harvard. “But when you combine missing a variety of shifts in the industry with management turmoil, it’s hard not to have the shine come off your reputation.”

Before diving into antitrust investigations against Google, Apple, or any other tech company, it would behoove the FTC to remember that important lesson -- markets change.