Maybe there's something
isn't telling the Street.
Now that the dust has settled on Thursday morning's announcement that Dell will buy $16 billion worth of
disk drives, storage devices and memory chips over the next seven years, it seems Dell is getting a lot less out of the deal than IBM. While IBM is locking in one of its best customers to a long-term procurement deal, Dell is getting access to IBM's current and future technology. But that doesn't mean Dell will have the exclusive use of new technologies such as IBM's copper chips. So why the alliance?
Well, for one thing, speculation has it that Dell could expand this deal into a comprehensive services partnership with IBM, which has established itself as a global services leader over the last few years. Such a deal could be a real positive: for IBM. Services -- including consulting, support and sales to customers -- have allowed IBM to step out of its stodgy past and become a player in this new information age.
In addition, a services partnership with IBM runs counter to Dell's desire to boost its own services business. Dell CEO Michael Dell said at
technology conference last month that services could offer it a way to stack up more favorably against rival
James Vanderslice, vice president of IBM's technology group, went out of his way at this morning's press conference in New York to stress that the deal "has nothing to do with services."
"Frankly, I see what IBM is getting, but I don't see what Dell is getting out of the deal," says BancBoston Robertson Stephens' Dan Niles.
"A big services contract would be of great benefit to IBM, while Dell already outsources its services business to many other companies," says Dan Niles, a
BancBoston Robertson Stephens
analyst who rates Dell a market perform. (His firm has done no recent Dell underwriting.)
Dell -- since it opted out of its
services agreement last year when Compaq bought DEC -- set up a number of services contracts with
, says Jerele Neeld, Dell's enterprise systems group director of communications.
So what exactly does the deal do for Dell?
"Frankly, I see what IBM is getting, but I don't see what Dell is getting out of the deal," says Niles, who recently (and correctly) predicted Dell would not meet analysts' revenue growth estimates for its last quarter. "They were kind of getting these products from IBM already."
Vanderslice says IBM's original equipment manufacturer business -- the division involved in the deal -- had $6.6 billion in revenues in 1998, out of total revenues of $81.7 billion.
Dell says there will be a "significant increase in the amount of products Dell buys from IBM," according to Libba Lenton, a Dell spokeswoman. Lenton wouldn't say how much Dell currently buys from IBM, but
analyst Mark Specker estimates Dell will double its purchases -- to about $2 billion a year from $1 billion -- as a result of Thursday's agreement. But again, that's to IBM's advantage.
The heavily hyped "alliance" may in fact be a way for Dell to recoup some of the standing it lost in its last quarter, when it disappointed Wall Street for the first time in years. But while IBM's stock soared Thursday as much as 10 points higher -- it closed at 170 11/16, up 3 15/16 -- Dell's stock popped up a relatively modest 3 points and closed up just 15/16 at 81 7/8.
Niles thinks the direct PC seller is searching for ways to boost revenues, and a future technology breakthrough from IBM of which Dell could take advantage could be just the ticket. Just this week, Dell announced it was launching
, an online computer accessories store that will presumably add revenues to the company's bottom line. But since it will sell accessories, "the margins Dell has come to expect won't be there," he says.
Of course, Niles is not high on Dell's prospects now -- "I'm negative on Dell, so from my perspective I'm pleased with the deal" -- but others on Wall Street are agreeing with his way of thinking on what IBM's Vanderslice called an "alliance that is much more than a procurement contract."
"It's very intriguing, but there has got to be a lot left unsaid here," says Joel Gechter, a hardware analyst at the money management firm
, which has stakes in both companies. "There's got to be something else brewing."
And that's just it: If there is more coming, the partnership makes a lot of sense for both parties. But if this is it, IBM has pulled off one sweet deal.