'The tablet is my device of choice': Why PC creator Mark Dean has largely abandoned his electronic child

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Mark Dean helped create the IBM PC 5150 and holds three of IBM's original nine patents.

Credit: Jack Parker

When your enemies sling arrows at you, you don’t take it personally. But when one of your own is doing the shooting, it stings. A lot. 

That’s exactly what happened when Mark Dean compared the PC to a CRT or vacuum tube, rocking the tech industry just two days before the PC’s 30th birthday in 2011. Dean is credited for his work on the first gigahertz chip, the first color PC monitor, and the ISA bus. Dean was also part of the small team that created the very first IBM PC 5150—he holds three of IBM’s original nine patents for it. So Dean’s saying the PC was dead was like hearing Bill Gates or Steve Wozniak say their landmark products (Windows and the Apple, respectively) were dead. 

Dean was still a CTO with IBM at the time of his statement. In 2013, he joined the faculty in the College of Engineering at the University of Tennessee. PCWorld caught up with Dean recently to see if he still believes what he said three years ago. (Editor’s note: This email exchange has been condensed and edited.)

ibm pc 5150

Dean was one of the team members who helped create the first IBM PC. He holds three of the nine patents on the device.

In your blog post three years ago, you didn’t outright say the PC was dead, but you said it was going the way of vacuum tubes, typewriters and the CRT. Isn’t that a little extreme? 

The need for a PC (desktop or laptop) has been greatly diminished given the functionality provided by tablets and smartphones. While PC demand will continue to decline, they still have a few attributes that will continue to drive their need: entry of large amounts of text (e.g., keyboard) and review of large amounts of visual data (e.g., screen size). 

Even if we could implement a 100 percent accurate voice recognition system, will workers tolerate the office noise levels voice input would create? Another approach might be to store documents as “spoken word” files. Managing and searching them is harder and you would still need a voice-to-text converter for reading documents. 

The visualization and/or review of large data is more easily solved by enabling tablets and smartphones to wirelessly display content on large monitors. In fact, wirelessly attaching a large monitor and keyboard to a tablet or smartphone essentially gives you the functionality and capacities of a PC or laptop.

So, it sounds like you’re saying local performance doesn’t matter? Because it seems that a tablet will never have the local performance of a desktop PC. Isn’t this all contingent on our connectivity to the Internet?

This is not exactly what I am saying. What people need is already mostly covered by the functional capacities and capabilities delivered by a tablet.If on occasion I “need” more capability I can pay for it as needed (or get it for free) through web-based services. These incremental capabilities include storage, applications, gaming, news feeds, media content and processing services. Moderate to high-speed internet connectivity is sufficient for most “needs” beyond what can be delivered through a “standalone” tablet or smartphone client.

I also see the demise of the smartphones via “wearable devices”, and the demise of the tablets via “virtual workstations”. Most of this capability will be enabled via 3D I/O devices, projection technologies and the ability to handle media data like text. 

Ferenc Gerak

The PC is doomed to extinction in the same way as the CRT, says one of its creators.

Has anything in the last three years in the PC industry lead you to change your position on the fate of the PC? 

No. 

Ouch. Most people took your column to say that tablets were the future. What you really said was: “…that innovation flourishes best not on devices but in the social spaces between them, where people and ideas meet and interact.” Can you give me examples of innovations you’ve seen in the last three years? Are we talking Internet of Things? Social media? 

One small example is enabling people to interact, work and play together in real-time through their devices. This includes distributed interactive games, interactive document creation, video conferencing, interactive product development, and MOOCS/distance learning.

Social media services and applications is another example, creating a new way for humans to interact and share information. The Internet of Things is yielding opportunities in productivity improvement, reduced waste, transportation efficiencies, and more. Don’t forget the cloud, which is changing how we access computing applications, services and storage. The Internet continues to be the enabler for all these advances.

But there are problems all this capability is creating: The need to store and analyze exponentially increasing amounts of information, and the ability to secure and protect all that data. We have yet to solve either of these problems.

When you were a CTO at IBM, you said you used a tablet as your primary computer. I’d think a university professor has to use a PC with large monitor or many monitors to be highly productive. Do you truly use a tablet for all of your work?

For 85 percent of my activities, including reading research papers, homework, email, information sharing and delivering class content, I am using a tablet. I still need a PC to visualize large amounts of data and/or to enter large amounts of text data. The tablet is my device of choice.

In 2011, you said you were glad IBM had sold off its PC division to Lenovo. Today, IBM is facing layoffs and declining sales and revenue, while Lenovo has seen a 300 percent increase in shareholder value and is the No. 1 producer of PCs in the world. Do you think IBM should have stayed in the PC business?

No. PCs are commodities: high volume, low margin devices. It’s difficult to differentiate a PC. IBM must continue to leverage its strengths: highly innovative technologies, products and services.

Of all the technology you’ve had a hand in creating, what are you the most proud of?

I am most proud of the PC and the team it took to make it happen. We developed a device that changed the way society works, learns and plays. It enabled the world to be more productive and entertained. How many times does someone get to work on something that had the impact the PC had on the world.

As a professor you’re seeing today’s crop of engineers, who will create the amazing devices of tomorrow. How do they compare to your generation?

Today’s crop of engineers are more talented than my generation. This doesn’t mean they are smarter. But they grew-up with fewer constraints and limitations in the way they interacted with each other and the amount of information they had at their disposal. They also have access to more capable computing environments and tools, allowing them to be more productive in their research and development. They play with things more advanced than we had in our most advanced research labs. It’s like most things, an increase in the number of things that are possible increases the potential to innovate. 

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