June 16, 2011 12:30pm EST
By Samara Lynn
(Dr. Mark Dean-IBM Fellow)
Dr. Mark Dean is no stranger to accolades. He was named an IBM Fellow in 1995, the company's highest technical honor, and is a member of the IBM Academy of Technology. He also received a National Institute of Science Outstanding Scientist Award, was named the CCG Black Engineer of the Year, and was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame, among other achievements.
On the eve of IBM's 100th anniversary celebration, Dean sat down with PCMag to discuss why personal computing has become so ubiquitous, as well as his take on tablets, Watson, and the future of computing.
How did the original IBM PC come about, and why was it such a success?
About 13 of us sat down in Boca Raton, Florida and built what became the IBM PC. It was a fun time, a really great time, we had a good team. We had a sufficient number of applications to meet the needs of most people who wanted publishing, documentation, and ledgering.
I think [a reason] the PC was so successful was because we allowed other people to play. All other designs were proprietary. When we shipped the PC, we also shipped the logic diagrams and all the software you needed to build a duplicate one. We did that so repair people could repair the machines when they broke. We didn't hold it close to the vest. We said, "Here's how it was built. If you want to build something to attach to it, look at these logics. You just have to find the parts and put it together yourself."
That is the main reason the industry grew so large. We thought we would sell a couple of hundred—a thousand at best. We thought we'd be doing something else in a year. But the timing was right, the product was right, and we just hit it kind of right.
Are you amazed by the success of the PC?
No, I am not amazed that it has become such a common device. In fact, I think it took too long. For all our skills and capabilities—and this is just me talking—we could have and still need to deliver more capabilities to people in general. A lot of software and applications are designed for people who know computing. They weren't designed for people like my mother. While [the PC] has been a great tool, and useful and changed the way we do things, it still has very little effect on her... [although] she's starting to get access to things she hadn't before.
Will mobile devices replace PCs?
Now we have these tablets. In the developing world, the handheld is the device of choice. Tablets are transitional devices. I like them. I've always said if we are going to replace paper, we need something like this. The challenge is they are still one or two steps away from replacing paper. I think the handhelds will be the device of choice, [but] the challenge there is it's still in my hand.
I think laptops and PCs—while they will still be around— their growth is flattening out. The only thing keeping the PC as a viable tool is the way we input information. We have yet to replace the keyboard. So, if I still want to input a lot of information, the only way I can do that is by writing—which tablets are starting to be able to do—or use a keyboard. The format of information and how we do things will be driven by the handheld device. If I am going to shoot for growth in the next 10 years, I have to target those handheld devices. The fact is, if I target those handhelds, whatever I do will work on tablets so I am covered.
What does the future of computing look like?
We are going back to the way it was. IBM started it way back when we created personal storage capability with the PC, and now we are leading people back to to what we used do via the cloud. We enabled the mainframe, and we made it possible for people and enterprises to store a lot of information in a central location via mainframe, then local storage, and now they are saying it's more efficient to move back to the cloud.
With data in the cloud, you just need a small device and we can secure that better. We are working on technology that will essentially allow us to build a solid-state device that will have storage capacity of hard drives but the access time of DRAM. If I can get a terabyte of information on a device the size of a quarter, then I can change the way I build machines.
I think in the next 25 years I will stop carrying my wallet. A handheld device will have all my credit cards, driver's license, passport, my medical records, my pictures, music…I won't need my wallet. I may need a terminal or a kiosk so I can plug in if I want to do some typing or have a bigger display. Right now, if I lose my wallet, I have to call to turn off credit cards, I have to go to the DMV…it takes me weeks to recover. When the handheld device [is lost] it can be turned off. Those that provide my service will send me a new device, and it will be in my hands with everything I had on it.
What are some remaining technology challenges?
We've been building PCs for computation. The challenge for most enterprises is that they are data-oriented. Some point data will be like currency; corporations will be valued by the data they collect. Companies have yet to manage data insight—a system like Watson will allow that. Software needs to be more reliable with high-quality code. Analytics is the next big wave—capabilities beyond CRM and ERP.
We talk about computers becoming invisible. I shouldn't see the computer—then I can have a society be more productive. I don't need to know there's an operating system. I just want to be able to do what I want to do. We need to make [computer use] as common as putting on clothes in the morning or getting in the car and driving.
What's next for IBM?
We have done pretty well. Think of all the changes that have occurred in the past 100 years from mechanical to integrated circuits to vacuum tubes. We have made all these transitions. Companies that may have been dominant in one of those areas and did not make the transition are not around. At each transition, we had a leader willing to take risks.
Very few enterprises have industrial research operations with our breadth. Watson is a perfect example of research technology. I remember sitting in a conference room a few years ago and we agreed we would never be able to do what Watson did. We said if you can compete against a grand champion, you've got it. So the team ran off and they didn't know they couldn't do it. Same thing with building the original PC—we didn't know we couldn't do it.
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Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University
Varanasi 221005, UP