LAN InfoTech's Goldstein said he is even concerned the deal could negatively impact his own Dell PC sales since he must compete with pricing from the Dell.com website. "My number one competitor is Dell.com," he said. "This could give Dell.com an unfair competitive advantage to get a much better margin and knock me out of the water as a Dell partner."
Goldstein sees the potential for Microsoft to combine with Dell to build its own systems, providing an integrated hardware/software experience similar to the model that IBM used when it dominated the market with its mainframe computers.
"It could be Microsoft wants to emulate the old IBM mainframe model where IBM controlled all of the hardware and software and as a result charged higher prices for those systems," said Goldstein. In that case, he said, Microsoft may leverage some of Dell's hardware system capabilities to build its own integrated hardware/software Microsoft-branded systems.
Microsoft partners have "reason to be anxious" with a Microsoft investment in Dell, but that is the price of playing in the "post-PC world we live in," said Martin Wolf, president and founder of Martin Wolf M&A Global Advisors, an international investment advisory firm based in San Ramon, Calif., that specializes in solution provider deals, in an email exchange with CRN.
"Brilliant," Wolf said of the potential deal. "Offensive and defensive at the same time."
With a whopping $68 billion in cash, Microsoft's investment in Dell would be a minor investment with the potential for enormous strategic benefits, according to solution providers and OEMs. Besides a tight alliance that could help Microsoft build its own systems, the Dell investment could also give Microsoft big advantages in the enterprise market, said one PC OEM, who did not want to be identified.
"Dell is a huge Red Hat shop," said the PC OEM executive. "Dell has special Red Hat OEM status. This Microsoft investment could potentially change or derail Dell's focus on Red Hat, which is one of Microsoft's primary competitors. Dell Red Hat licensing and support subscriptions are typically 30 [percent] to 50 percent less than the average Red Hat partner. That makes it very hard to compete against Dell in that Red Hat market. What is going to happen to that Red Hat relationship?"
The PC OEM executive said the Dell-Microsoft relationship is just another sign of the end of the Wintel era. "This Microsoft investment in Dell looks a lot like Intel's decision to get out of the PC motherboard business in three years," said the executive. "The PC desktop is clearly a shrinking market. Microsoft is overhauling their licensing model for Windows 8 smartphones and tablets. So Microsoft probably doesn't perceive this as a high-risk investment."
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged as much in an annual letter to shareholders last year that noted that Microsoft is placing a greater emphasis on hardware devices in what he called a "fundamental shift" for the company.
Ballmer said the "full value" of Microsoft's software "will be seen and felt in how people use devices and services at work and in their personal lives. This is a significant shift, both in what we do and how we see ourselves -- as a devices and services company. It impacts how we run the company, how we develop new experiences, and how we take products to market for both consumers and businesses."
For system builders, the move away from the PC business and up the stack to focus on storage and servers has been going on for a few years already, Nor-Tech's Swank said.
"But Microsoft has its back against the wall in different ways," he said. "And for Microsoft, $3 billion is a drop in the bucket."
Additional reporting by Robert Wright, Scott Campbell and Joseph F. Kovar.