He refined the desktop PC. Now he wants to kill it
Mark Dean is one of the world's great tinkerers. As a boy, he and his father built a tractor from scratch "just because it was fun." As an adult, he likes nothing better than "getting greasy restoring old cars and engines." Well, almost nothing. The 42-year-old IBM engineer is in his glory at work, where he used his supreme tinkering skills to co-develop the familiar IBM-style personal computer that rules the world of desktops. Now he's seeking to make his brainchild obsolete by creating a voice-activated tablet that does everything a PC can do and more, only faster.
Dean, director of advanced systems development for the IBM Server Group, believes the seeds of his engineering career were planted when he tagged along with his dad, a Tennessee Valley Authority dam supervisor who checked turbines and generators in the system. Dean's grandfather, a high school principal, inspired leadership qualities by teaching his grandson patience and teamwork.
One of the few African-American students at his Jefferson City, Tenn., high school, Dean was a self-described "jock nerd" who earned varsity letters and straight A's. He decided to become an engineer because, as he puts it in geekspeak, "computers could amplify my ability." In the mostly white world of computer scientists, he has bumped up against racism, but he won't cite examples, noting that he has never met an issue that "I couldn't run right through or just go around."
During 20 years at Big Blue, Dean has established himself as a computer wizard. In the early 1980s, he and IBM colleague Dennis Moeller developed the interior architecture that allows PCs to share information with printers and other devices. Dean holds three of the original nine patents on the computer that all PCs are based upon. In 1997, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for co-developing what Thomas Hollingsworth, director of the hall's recognition programs, calls "a system that has allowed PCs to become part of our lives."
A year later, Dean led a team that built a 1,000-megahertz chip, which did a billion calculations per second. The mighty chip will likely come to market in two to four years.
One might think the holder of the company's highest technical ranking, IBM Fellow, would rest on his laurels. But Dean itches to make another breakthrough. "Information will be the currency of the next millennium," he says. "That's where the money will be made. The opportunities are going to be endless." Watching folks battling to fold newspapers, he set out to find a more efficient way to keep up with the world, following two maxims that guide IBM engineers. First: Build something that can be sold to individuals to make them more creative. Second: Build something engineers want. Laughing, he says, "Engineers tend to invent things that help them, and if it helps anyone else, fine."
Early in the next century, Dean hopes his new concoction, which he says is "in the idea and invention stage," will be ready for the public: a sleek tablet that is magazine-size, inexpensive, programmable, and voice-activated. He expects his unnamed dream pad, which will run on a 24-hour battery, to provide everything a PC does, including streaming audio and video, word processing, and spreadsheets. It will even have a port for old fogies who can't give up their keyboards. And it will wirelessly put the Internet and other information at your fingertips.
Hot links. The tablet may be his favorite project, but it's not his only one. Amid cables, monitors, and chunky 500-MHz computers in his Austin, Texas, lab, Dean talks about his efforts to invent hardware to link groups of inexpensive computers to process information. The result would be more efficient and cheaper than a single mainframe. If it works, Dean says, we can "give people the tools to get any information they want, anytime, anywhere."
His family, Dean says, gave him the tools he needs to succeed in his quest. Early on, they taught him there are a lot of right ways to do things: "The tricky part is picking one and getting on with it. If you miss a goal, that's not a catastrophe. You just reset." Spoken like a true jock nerd.
This story appears in the January 3, 2000 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.