Hailed as a young genius, he created the inexpensive, made-to-order personal computer in his dorm room and sold it straight to the public. In the 1980s and '90s, his face appeared on magazine covers, and well before he turned 40 he was a college dropout-turned-billionaire chief executive, ranked alongside Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
But that was a long time ago in the fast-moving world of high technology. Now the PC is getting eclipsed by smartphones and tablet computers, and Dell is struggling to save his company -- and his legacy.
Last week's announcement that Michael Dell and the investment firm Silver Lake have struck a $24.4-billion deal to buy Dell Inc. and take it private may well be the founder's last chance to recapture his former glory. The agreement will allow the company to attempt a turnaround without having to worry about keeping its stock price up and pleasing Wall Street.
For Michael Dell, 47, the attempt to retool the company he built is personal, said technology analyst Patrick Moorhead, who runs Moor Insights & Strategy.
"His name is on the logo and all the buildings. So he takes all of this very personally," Moorhead said.
Analysts said Dell Inc. will have to mine more profitable areas such as technology consulting and business software.
In a statement, Dell himself said little more than that the transformation will "take more time, investment and patience."
The company he founded some 29 years ago rose to the top of the world's PC market more than a decade ago. In its heyday, its turn-of-the-millennium ad slogan, "Dude, you're getting a Dell," became a pop-culture catchphrase. Dell sold directly to customers, cutting out stores and other middlemen, and passing the savings along.
"What Michael Dell was all about was getting products to people faster and more directly and at a lower cost than anyone could," said Forrester Research analyst David Johnson.
While Dell PCs are still used in offices and homes around the world, the industry has proved unforgiving to those who don't evolve with it. With smartphone and tablet sales booming, PC and laptop sales have weakened.
Dell Inc. is now worth less than the $30 billion it raised in its 1988 initial public offering and well below its peak of more than $150 billion in 2000, and it is now the world's third-largest PC maker, having fallen behind Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo. Apple has a smaller share of the computer market but more than makes up for that with its sleek iPods, iPhones and iPads.
Michael Dell stepped down as chief executive in 2004, staying on as chairman. But the company faltered, and he returned as CEO in 2007 and began carrying out a turnaround plan that included improving customer service, thinning managerial ranks and expanding into new businesses.
Moorehead said it will probably take him at least three to five years to transform his company. That's a time frame that would have caused Wall Street to grow even more frustrated with Dell.
"If what you are trying to do is not being valued by your investors, you need to go somewhere else," Moorhead said. "They weren't getting any respect on Wall Street, so this is the best move they could make right now."