14 years later, Dell founder backtracks on Apple attack

Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell answered questions onstage at the Web 2.0 Summit.

Story highlights

  • Michael Dell seems to regret a statement he made about Apple in 1997
  • Dell had once said that Apple should shut itself down
  • Now, Dell praises Steve Jobs and calls him a friend
Much has changed in technology over the past 14 years, including Michael Dell's forecast for the industry's biggest player, Apple.
The history of Apple has been a hot topic in the two weeks since the death of its co-founder Steve Jobs. One of the most repeated quotes came from the founder of Dell, a longtime Apple competitor in personal computers.
At a tech conference in October 1997, Dell was asked what he would do with Apple if he were in charge of the beleaguered company.
"What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders," Dell replied after some prodding.
By that time, in the late 1990s, Apple was on its fourth CEO in just a few years, and Jobs had recently returned as interim CEO when the company acquired his failed education-equipment vendor called NeXT. Apple's troubles were well known within the industry, so Dell's comment, while brusque, wasn't out of line with other pundits'.
"It was on the rocks," Jobs said of Apple upon his return in 1997, speaking at a conference last year. "Apple was about 90 days from going bankrupt back then in the early days, and it was much worse than I thought when I went back initially."
But as we know now, Jobs orchestrated a miraculous turnaround, taking Apple from near-bankruptcy to most valuable company by market capitalization.
When asked about his famous statement on Tuesday at a conference in San Francisco, Dell paused to ponder the question as the audience laughed loudly.
"It's a great question and a great opportunity to clarify what I said," Dell said. "The meaning of my answer was that I am the CEO of Dell. I don't think of being a CEO of any other company."
Dell explained that he answered the question reluctantly and that he had not thought deeply about how to turn Apple around because he would never want to run another company. "I am not a CEO for hire," the Dell chief said.
He then went on to shower praises on the late computer pioneer and recalled when a 16-year-old Dell first met Jobs in Texas. "Steve will be missed and was a friend," he said.
In January 2006, Jobs sent a companywide memo that read: "Team, it turned out that Michael Dell wasn't perfect at predicting the future. Based on today's stock market close, Apple is worth more than Dell. Stocks go up and down, and things may be different tomorrow, but I thought it was worth a moment of reflection today."
We'll never know how Jobs would have responded to Dell's about-face. But when an Apple employee asked the newly installed interim CEO in 1997 about Dell's original statement, according to venture capitalist and former Apple employee John Lilly, Jobs said, "F*** Michael Dell."