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Tom Wolfe once wrote that “you can’t go home again.”

In the computer world, at least, Wolfe has been proven wrong. Prodigal son Steve Jobs was shown the door at Apple and returned to strike gold with the PowerMaC, the iPod, and the iPhone.

Now it’s Michael Dell’s turn to rule the roost for a while – Dell Inc. investors certainly hope so.

Dell, the world’s second-largest manufacturer of personal computers, has never been a particular favorite of mine. The company’s computers are mediocre, service (once a linchpin of the Dell brand) has suffered, according to recent consumer surveys, and business customers have never really warmed up to the Dell hardware line-up.

Perhaps that’s why Michael Dell had to return to the company in early 2007, as the company was taking on water and needed the energy and brand infusion that Dell brings to his namesake.

Maybe that’s exactly what Dell needed. This week, Dell’s first-quarter sales exceeded those all-important analyst expectations, and profits were above expectations, too. That good news immediately fueled a 10% run-up in Dell’s stock, triggering renewed enthusiasm for Dell from investors, who are hoping, I’m sure, that the first-quarter digits were no one-time wonder and that Michael Dell’s turnaround plan is taking flight.

Here are the numbers, at least the relevant ones. Notebook shipments jumped 43 percent in the first quarter compared with a year earlier, thanks to a big boost in non-U.S markets (especially Asia). Overseas sales are a cornerstone Dell’s news strategy, so the news that revenues rose 19% in Asia and 15% in Europe and the Middle East has to be encouraging for the Austin, TX-based company.

Then again, analysts certainly weren’t expecting much. "Dell did relatively well, but it was against low expectations," American Technology Research Shaw Wu told the Associated Press on Thursday. The Dell numbers might be a harbinger of good tidings for the technology sector, though. Technology spending, adds Wu, "is turning out a little better than expected. With most of the vendors, from Intel to HP to Apple and Microsoft; the spending has been stronger than feared," Wu said.

Of course, much of that spending is coming from overseas, with U.S. companies still in a tech holding pattern. In a conference call with media members and analysts, Dell Chief Financial Officer Donald J. Carty implied that Dell is much more reliant on the U.S. than some of its competitors, so any continued stagnation in U.S. consumer spending, especially on the business side, might bring Dell’s momentum to a screeching halt. U.S companies are “holding back spending” Carty said, adding that he didn’t things would brighten up domestically until this summer. Dell is second behind Hewlett-Packard in world-wide PC sales, but is the front-runner in the U.S., according to the analyst firm Gartner Group.

So is Dell making a sustained move overseas? Michael Dell, on the same conference call, said that strong Asia sales were partly due to a 140 percent surge at 1,800 stores in China that sell Dell machines. By early August, he said, Dell will be in 3,500 Chinese stores. That ramp-up in store sales overseas, coupled with a favorable currency rate due to the weak dollar – Dell gains almost 4% on the currency exchange with its strong overseas numbers, but so do other computer suppliers - could hold in Dell's favor. The company is also in serious cost-cutting mode, with 7,000 job cuts in the last year and a plan to cut $3 billion in costs by 2011.

Verdict? While it’s hard to say for sure, I don’t think the Q1 Dell numbers fall into that “one-time wonder” category. Sooner or later, U.S. consumers, business and retail, will climb off the mat and spend again. And foreign buyers already are on the case.

Michael Dell, the prodigal son, appears to have a good plan moving forward. And forward Dell is going, if its solid first quarter is any indication.

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