Because Apple has an iPhone and people are unlikely to wed an iPod Touch with an iPhone, Apple hasn't turned that device into a compelling Smartphone accessory. Dell clearly doesn't have that problem. And, recall that before the iPhone, the Motorola Razor was the hot phone. This was a vastly smaller device and many of the folks who created it now work for Dell.
Physical design is important, as Dell learned painfully with their iPod competitor a few years back. Their recent Adamo laptop showcases they can do hardware designs that are attractive and differentiated. We just dont have any examples of small devices that have been designed this way. To be successful this product will need to be stunning to look at and not repeat the mistakes they or Microsoft initially made with their MP3 players.
User interface is also critical. Palm recently demonstrated with the Palm Pre that it is possible to do a better job with the UI than Apple does But Dell is not Apple. In addition, back end capability is what increasingly people are buying with these devices. A rich application store and set of web features is a requirement just to play in this space.
Finally the device has to do core features well: movies, video, email, and PDA functions. Palm isnt licensing their platform out. Microsofts Mobile platform isnt being used on devices of this class and wont truly be ready to compete until next year when Windows Mobile 7 ships.
This leaves Android. But, out of the box, Android isnt really capable of taking on Apple head to head yet (though it is close).
And to be successful, Dell will need to improve the user experience. Once again this isnt Dells strength. (HP has, with their TouchSmart product, shown more capability here of late. The only question is: can Dell step up to the challenge?
Any company can be beaten and Dell has the resources to take the fight to Apple and win. The better question is, will they? Companies and individuals often look at a problem and then craft a solution based on what they are good at and want to do, or to limit risk, not based on what actually needs to be done. This is why so many challengers to the iPod have failed, starting with Dell and ending with Microsofts Zune.
To beat a dominant vendor you have to accurately assess what needs to be done and then do it, not set an easy goal and position so you can blame someone else for the failure. With Dell there is no doubt they can take on Apple, yet I question whether they accurately know the task ahead of them and are willing to do what needs to be done to achieve it. Given the history of failed attempts on Apples crown, the odds favor Apple.
This has implications that apply to other efforts, like Ciscos moves into the server space, Oracles Unbreakable Linux and Sun moves (Snorkel), Apples and Microsofts moves against each other, and AMDs moves against Intel. If you dont set the bar high enough and then drive people to exceed it, you are only left with finding folks to blame for the resulting failure. In this industry there are far too many people expert at finding people to blame and far too few who create magic.