As third-generation electronic-business models driven by Extensible Markup Language (XML) begin to emerge on the Web, Dell last week relaunched its Web site as part of a concerted effort to stay on the cutting edge of Web technologies.
At the same time, however, archrival Compaq is not sitting idle. In January, Compaq will unveil a mega-portal offering a vast range of product solutions and services, including those of competing vendors, on a still-unnamed Web site.
Dell and Compaq are both seeking to better serve their customers' solution and support needs but are taking radically different paths to reach that destination.
A primary difference in approach is the range of products that will be offered on the two competing sites, because Compaq has opted to open its site to a broad range of vendors and partners.
"[The Compaq Web site] has to be agnostic and will be treated as an entirely new and separate business unit," said Mike Winkler, senior vice president and group general manager of the commercial computing group at Compaq.
"I think that you will find that this will be a partner-based proposition, and we will have objective partners [contribute content] on our behalf," Winkler said.
Dell.com, meanwhile, is getting a front-end face-lift and is one of the first large commercial Web sites driven by XML.
"The old site was a conglomeration of a lot of different areas representing Dell but not really representing the Dell customer," said John Fruehe, business manager of Dell Online. "The site will now customise itself for each user and remember you when you return."
That means non-corporate customers won't be bombarded with the latest Dell server offerings. Likewise, IT managers won't have to weed through consumer product information.
Dell.com also allows customers to enter what Dell terms its System Service Tag, which is a number marked on every Dell product. The new Web site recognises the System Service Tag; posts a picture of the appropriate system, its configuration, and any existing warranty information; and then allows customers to download system-specific software, files, drivers, and utilities, without having to contact a technician.
"Having an XML-backed site also gives us the ability to update any page and replicate it globally around the world," Fruehe said. "The real benefit of XML is that it will become a business-to-business language, so we can drop an entire database from the site right into a customer's purchasing system."
Fruehe pointed out that visitors to the site will still enjoy a fast-booting HTML-style layout, with an improvement in getting information to customers.
With the exception of a link to Dellauction.com, Dell.com will exclusively deal in Dell products. That separates Dell from its in-state rival, Compaq.
Compaq believes it has an edge on Dell when it comes to customer-service features. For example, the Compaq Web site destination will provide supporting services and content from American Express, CMGI, Intel, Microsoft, and Siebel.
"It sounds like Compaq is trying to become all things to all people, and that's not always the best strategy," said Rob Rosenthal, a research analyst at International Data Corp.
"The Wal-Mart approach, although attractive, has its risks," said Kneko Burney, director of marketing and opportunities at Cahners In-Stat Group, in Arizona.
"If you've got a million products, you've got to search through a million products," Burney said. "This says you haven't learned how to make the model work, and on the Net you need to be focused."