Rise and surprise fall of a PC generation

One of the pioneers of IBM's first PCs says desktop and laptop machines are past their prime.  And that this is a good thing.
Customers inspect tablet computers on display inside a store in Madrid, Spain. Angel Navarrete / Bloomberg News
Customers inspect tablet computers on display inside a store in Madrid, Spain. Angel Navarrete / Bloomberg News
The personal computer turned 30 last year and one of its key architects believes the technology is now past its prime.

Mark Dean, the chief technology officer at IBM in the Middle East and Africa, points out sales of tablet computers are now growing faster than those of PCs.

Having worked at IBM for 33 years, Mr Dean played a pivotal role in developing the company's first PC, launched in 1981. He still holds several patents for the technology used in the debut model, the 5150.

But now PC sales are "levelling off" as more consumers choose other devices such as tablets and, in some areas of Africa and the Middle East, mobile phones.

"I like the PC because I have a long history with it," says Mr Dean. "It will still be a viable tool. But it has reached its peak.

"It's not a growing industry, and there are other industries - tablets and other handheld devices - that are growing faster," adds Mr Dean, who is based in Dubai.

Despite this, laptop and desktop computers will continue to be used for the foreseeable future, he says.

Here, Mr Dean discusses the key trends shaping how we interact with technology.

You said last year the PC was going the way of the typewriter and vinyl records. Is that the case?

It's going that way. But the PC will never die. I suspect that it will remain as a viable tool, just as many other technologies that have come and kind of levelled off have remained viable.

But you say the PC has reached its peak. Does that surprise you?

I never thought I'd live long enough to create something that had an impact on society - which the PC did - and then watch it in a mode of less importance, to essentially dominate and now become an afterthought. Now, if you're designing something new, then you're probably not designing it for the PC.

Does that make you sad or do you see it as an opportunity?

I think it's exciting. When IBM decided to get out of the PC business, when we sold our PC business to Lenovo, everybody asked me, 'Isn't this terrible, aren't you sad?' But I had already moved on.

Is it true you hold three of original patents for the PC?

Of all the patents that I have, and I have 40 personally, most of them [concern] the ISA-Bus, which was an interface between the processing unit and all of the accessories or adaptors that you could plug into the system. So keyboards and mice, modems and ethernet cards and all the video and graphics. And that's actually what defined PC compatibility. And that was key to building machines that were compatible with the IBM machines.

Do you see the tablet overtaking the laptop in the Middle East?

I think here, in the near future, you're going to start to see the tablet be a primary device. That means most of the activity that will be done will be on it, especially when tablets also start to carry a phone capability. I think that's going to happen pretty quickly. The number of tablets that will be produced and sold will grow faster than the number of laptops. I don't carry paper any more. [The tablet] allows me to carry everything with me. That just shows my generational constraint because I'm biased to something that has a bigger screen. But most generations will do the opposite - they will go right to the cellphone, and say, 'Why do I need a tablet?'

So some people are using a phone instead of a computer?

Africa and parts of the Middle East are unique because the device that is affordable is the cellphone. A tablet or laptop, even at US$300 [Dh1,101], is still pretty expensive. But everyone has a cellphone. They may not have electricity in the middle of Africa but they have a cellphone.

But you still think desktop and laptop PCs are viable. Why is that?

The interesting thing about the PC, which is mostly laptops, is we have yet to create an input device as efficient as the keyboard. We have yet to master that. The keyboard has some interesting characteristics that keep it as an important device in its own right.

What about voice recognition?

We haven't mastered that yet. With voice recognition, we can get it to 95 per cent accuracy. You would think that sounds pretty good. But it's not quite good enough.

So what is the future of how we interact with computers?

I still believe voice is going to be key. Once we are able to get 99 per cent accuracy and translation, I think the world starts to open up. If I can go to Morocco and still speak English but [by using a voice-recognition computer] everyone hears me in Arabic or French, then I've just opened up a whole new world.

Is a computer that links directly with your brain just the stuff of science fiction?

That's way in the future. The question is, when will culture be comfortable letting you implant things in you when you are healthy? When will a healthy person decide that they want to be augmented with something electronic that they can't ever get rid of? It's more than a tattoo. But as long as we don't do anything harmful I don't think it's a step too far.


Published: August 30, 2012 04:00 AM


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