It was a long time coming. Now let's see if it was worth the wait.

Sixteen months ago, in a column called "Dude, Dell Needs a Clue," I made a couple of mild suggestions for how computer maker Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) could become a bit more like Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), without necessarily evolving into Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ). "With the tiny exception of wrapping a snake around an LCD TV on its homepage," I observed, "there's very little about Dell that evokes the concept of 'cool' these days." I exhorted Dell to rediscover its mojo -- to do something hip and trendy.

I'm not so bold as to believe that column influenced the decision-makers at this dual Inside Value and Stock Advisor recommendation, but I have to admit that yesterday's news was gratifying.

How Dell got its groove back
On Tuesday, Dell unveiled a new gaming laptop, tricked out especially for rabid fans of Vivendi's (soon to be Activision's (NASDAQ:ATVI)) World of Warcraft. The new "XPS M1730 World of Warcraft Edition" doesn't come cheap, with a price tag of $4,500. But it does come with:

  • "original art by Blizzard artists on LCD back, and Honor Badges on the wings"
  • World of Warcraft and World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade pre-loaded
  • a free "World of Warcraft-themed backpack" stuffed with retail versions of the various WoW games and strategy guides

Oh, and there's a computer in there somewhere as well.

Give me a break!
Okay, admittedly, it's all a bit silly. Over-the-top. Way overpriced.

But give Dell credit for trying. Judging from the review on IGN.com, some gamers are giving Dell an A for effort at the very least, calling the XPS M1730 "a winner for WoW aficionados with some serious cash / platinum." And I must admit that if you can get past the price tag, the comp does have style. (A style unfortunately not matched by the laptop's name. I mean, really, Dell? XPS M1730? Could you make that any clunkier?)

But style only gets you so far. Even at $4,500 a pop, Dell will have to sell a whole lot of laptops if it wants to close the multibillion-dollar gap in free cash flow production growth rate between it and HP and Apple. (Then again, with 9 million people playing WoW, it's got a big enough target market to make some progress towards that goal.)

Is that all you got?
The real significance of yesterday's news, though, is what it portends for the future. Dell has thrown down the chain-mail gauntlet here and shown it's willing to experiment a bit -- to venture beyond the realm of the big beige box. If it can capitalize on this, we might have to keep the stock in our Stock Advisor and Inside Value portfolios indefinitely. Although the firm remains a fortnight's trek from achieving the institutionalized coolness of Apple, it's at least demonstrating an ability to think different(ly) than HP.

Considering Dell's history as a build-to-order computer maker, it's hard to overemphasize this point. Because while Apple is cool across the board, and HP less so, Dell's business model allows it to produce products as cool, or as conservative, as any individual customer requests.

Should its experiment with the XPS M1730 pan out, I see a whole raft of possibilities in the tailored-to-gamers market. For example, any day now, Electronic Arts' (NASDAQ:ERTS) Bioware subsidiary is expected to announce a new online game. With Bioware's record of success, it could well evolve into a phenomenon (or even multiple, successive phenomena) on a WoW scale. Each EA hit would offer Dell the prospect of building a new branded product at a premium price.

What's more, Dell doesn't even need a worldwide hit. In theory, if Dell can master the art of tricking out comps to suit individual gamers' tastes, it should be able to produce one-off gaming comps to suit even more localized "hits." Do you like Marvel's (NYSE:MVL) Spider-Man? Meet the new Dell XPS SM1000. Are you a fan of Take-Two's (NASDAQ:TTWO) Grand Theft Auto? Get yourself behind the wheel of the XPS GT2000. (Seriously, Dell. Get that naming thing fixed.)

And if George Lucas comes through with his plans to develop a Star Wars television series, and the gaming companies pick up on that? Don't even get me started -- Dell might have to raise the $4,500 price tag on the XPS X-WING3000, just to keep a lid on demand.

Related Foolishness:

Electronic Arts, Activision, and Marvel are Stock Advisor picks. You can find out why with a free 30-day trial. Take-Two is a Rule Breakers pick.

Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Marvel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.