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The Facts Behind Michael Dell's Claims That Dell Was First With Wireless Portables

The Facts Behind Michael Dell's Claims That Dell Was First With Wireless Portables

by , 7:00 AM EDT, August 29th, 2001

[Update: We have published a new article that updates this one. The follow up article says that we were initially off by a year, making Michael Dell's claims that much more erroneous.]

MacNN published a mention of an interview with Michael Dell in TechnologyReview that contained a glaring innacuracy. In the interview, Mr. Dell makes some claims about things his company did before anyone else. The only problem is that in one of those cases someone else did do it first, and that someone was Apple. Wanting to get to the bottom of the story, we spoke to Dell and Apple to get the facts. First off, from the interview:

And I can point to hundreds of unique inventions or ideas that we have driven. We had the first color notebook that was powered by batteries. We had the first 486 machine to ship. We had the first system to ship with the EISA [Extended Industry-Standard Architecture] bus. Right now our notebook team is continuing to drive very, very hard on size, weight, wireless integration—we were the first to integrate wireless into notebooks, with integrated antennas.

The first color laptop, the first 486 Wintel box, the first EISA bus are all claims of which Mr. Dell can be proud. The claim that Dell was the first to integrate wireless antennas into notebooks, however, is just not true. Apple was the first company to introduce built-in support for wireless in its portable in the form of 802.11b support (AirPort) in the iBook. The iBook was introduced in July of 1999, and it began shipping in September of 1999, according to an Apple spokesperson. Anecdotal reports from around the Mac Web support that as well. The Mac Observer published a report from an Observer who bought his iBook at Sears on October 1st, 1999.

We checked with Dell, and a spokesperson for that company told us that while Apple introduced the iBook first, Dell was the first to ship a working model with the Lattitude C600 and Lattitude C800. Both of those models included built-in support for 802.11b, and both shipped in October of 1999. When asked about the shipping date of Apple's iBook being in September of 1999, the month prior to Dell shipping the two Lattiude models, the Dell spokesperson told us that it comes down to how you define "shipping," and said that Dell was very specific when using these terms. "We had it [the Dell Lattitude] widely available in October of 1999. If you want to be safe, we were the first to ship to the corporate market."

For those keeping score at home, we also checked with both Dell and Apple about who shipped the first color laptop. Mr. Dell's claims that his company was the first with a color laptop are correct. Apple introduced the PowerBook 165c in February of 1993. Dell shipped the 325NC color portable on January 6th, 1992. That's a full year ahead of Apple.

The Mac Observer Spin:

The animosity between Michael Dell/Dell and Steve Jobs/Apple has long been a publicly documented thing. Dell (the company) went on a campaign earlier this year to undermine Apple's credibility in the education market. The company issued a series of disparaging remarks from Michael Dell and other Dell execs about Apple's supposed inability to compete in the education space. For its part, Steve Jobs displayed a picture of Michael Dell with crosshairs on his face when Apple rolled out the online Apple Store. Steve Jobs has publicaly criticized Dell's portables in interviews and press conferences. There is definitely some animosity there.

Be that as it may, Michael Dell's claim to have the first wireless portable is at best a stretch, and at worst an outright lie. Apple beat the world to market with 802.11b support when it announced the iBook. The company also shipped the iBook ahead of Dell's Johnny-come-lately Lattitude. Today, Apple still leads the market by including built-in AirPort support accross the entire product line, something that no other PC manufacturer can claim.

We will give Dell credit for catching up to Apple with the Lattitude model (in terms of 802.11b support), and for doing a much better job of advertising the capabilities of wireless in a great campaign for the "the wireless classroom." We'll also tip our hats to Dell's PR department, which was extremely professional and helpful. It's too bad they had to try and cover for a CEO who felt the need to make unsupported claims.

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