Dell chief executive says data is the next trillion-dollar opportunity

Michael Dell, chief executive of the company that bears his name, talks to Sophie Curtis about the biggest tech takeover in history, and why data is the next trillion-dollar opportunity

Michael Dell on the opening day of this year's Web Summit in Dublin.

Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, caused a stir last month when he declared that the PC was on its way out.

“Why would you buy a PC anymore?” he said in an interview with the Telegraph, discussing the launch of the company’s new super-sized iPad Pro.

His words echoed those of his predecessor, Steve Jobs, who in 2010 proclaimed that the “post-PC era” had arrived.

But for Michael Dell, who has been making computers since the early 1980s, the era of the PC is far from over.

In spite of reports that the market is in rapid decline, with shipments in the third quarter of 2015 falling 10.8pc against the same quarter a year ago, Mr Dell insists that PCs remain a vital part of his company’s business.

“The post-PC era has been great for the PC. When the post-PC era started there were about 180m PCs being sold a year and now it’s up to over 300m, so I like the post-PC era,” he said.

“For the last 11 quarters in a row, we’ve been gaining share in PCs. Last year we outgrew HP and Lenovo.

“It’s a business with an installed base of 1.8bn PCs, 600m of them are more than four years old, and as we create new beautiful, thin, powerful PCs that are better than the thing you bought five years ago, people will replace the old ones.

“And we are getting more and more share of that opportunity each quarter that goes by.”

He admits that the market is changing rapidly.

While PCs haven’t exactly gone away, (they still make up over half of Dell’s revenues), they now have to compete for attention with a multitude of other devices — including smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, games consoles, and even connected cars and appliances — all of which rely on the cloud to work.

The cloud, in essence, is a series of giant warehouses full of data, with massive pipes transporting packets back and forth to people’s devices over the internet.

Users connect to it to access their applications, carry out transactions, stream music and video, and store their digital photos.

While data is in the cloud, there is huge scope for companies to make use of it and make money from it.

Powerful analytics machines can crunch the data to provide insight into how people are behaving and reacting, and companies can then use this information to improve and tailor their products and services.

The sheer analytical and computational power of the cloud also makes it ideal for supporting new data-intensive areas of technology like the internet of things or ‘smart living’, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

Mr Dell believes that this so-called “data economy” is the next big opportunity for the technology industry.

It is why he is investing $67bn in data storage provider EMC — the biggest technology takeover in history — to bolster the company’s cloud offerings and offer what he describes as “end-to-end solutions”.

“If you take a step back here, you have a thousand times more computing devices than you did 10 years ago.

“It used to be PCs and smartphones; now you have tablets and sensors and cars spinning out all kinds of telemetry data, and all kinds of machines and products and services becoming digital products,” he said.

“Within all of those devices, you have a thousand times more applications, and the data is very rich.

“If you look at companies today, most of them are not very good at using the data they have to make better decisions in real time.

“I think this is where the next trillion dollars comes from for our customers and for our industry.”

Dell has sold servers for use in cloud systems for many years — with customers including Gap, Honda, and the University of Cambridge — and EMC has sold digital storage devices.

Together with VMware, a public company that is 81pc-owned by EMC, and other subsidiaries like Pivotal, which makes data analytics software, Dell and EMC have managed to gain a strong foothold in the cloud computing market.

However, by taking ownership of the entire technology stack, Dell will be able to offer pre-packaged solutions in a way it couldn’t before.

Its hope is that it will be able to sell this “converged infrastructure” to firms that want to build their own private clouds, and perhaps even to big cloud hosting companies like Rackspace, many of which now contract manufacturers to put together their hardware.

Mr Dell does not believe, as some do, that the rapid growth in computational power, together with the rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence, will put people’s jobs at risk.

He said that ideally, companies will combine the creativity and intuition of humans with the analytical and computational power of machines to drive industries forward.

He gave the example of the healthcare industry, where Dell already stores more than 10bn medical images for use by doctors and nurses all over the world.

He envisions powerful computers working alongside humans to analyse and interpret patient data, and suggest possible diagnoses and cures.

“You don’t want to replace the healthcare provider, but you want to assist the healthcare provider in saying: ‘There’s an 80pc likelihood, based on what we’re seeing, that it could be this condition here,’ ” he said.

“This is very different from when you go to medical school, and they teach you to be an all-knowing creature that can solve every problem.

“There’s something about data and collective intelligence that is incredibly powerful.

“Consumer companies like Google and Facebook have figured this out, and it’s just starting to come to the rest of the economy.”

He asserted that organisations should take a cautious and informed approach to adopting cloud technologies.

As some recent high-profile data breaches have highlighted, putting data in the cloud essentially means entrusting it to someone else, so it is important to check they are taking every possible measure to protect it.

He also condemned the UK government’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill (or Snooper’s Charter), which would place a legal requirement on communication providers to provide unencrypted communications to the police or spy agencies if requested through a warrant.

“Whatever the laws and rules are in a given country, obviously we’ll follow those.

“But our position on creating a backdoor inside our products so that the government can get in is that it’s a horrible idea,” he said.

“The reason it’s a horrible idea is if you have a back door it’s not just the people you want to get in that are going to get in, it’s also the people you don’t want to get in.

“All of the technical experts pretty much agree on this.

“We have an active dialogue with governments around the world, and certainly will engage with the UK government to explain our views from a technical perspective on why these things may or may not work.”

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