The man who founded the world's largest PC company thinks the best is still to come after a quarter-century of the IBM PC.
Twenty-five years have passed since IBM launched its version of the personal computer. Apple Computer may have captured the attention of early computer hobbyists with its first products, but IBM's PC made the business world sit up and realise that personal computers could be much more than toys.
Michael Dell started off using PCs to create homework shortcuts, the way many young people at the time discovered the new devices. Few people, including Dell's parents, realised exactly how large the potential was for the personal computer. More than 20 years after he founded PC's Limited, he admits his parents never quite embraced his decision to leave the University of Texas at Austin to start the company that would eventually bear his name and record US$56 billion in revenue during its last fiscal year.
As the PC industry looks back on 25 years of growth and success, CNET.com.au sister site CNET News.com spoke to Dell about his early experiences with the PC, the factors that led to its rapid acceptance among home and business users, and the future of the device. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Can you start off by telling me a little bit about what your first-ever PC was?
When I was in junior high school, I started playing around with -- at the time they were RadioShack PCs -- so they were the first PCs that I was able to play around with.
Do you remember how much that cost or what the specifications were?
They were probably US$800 or something like that, not super expensive and not very powerful either. They had cassette drives instead of hard-disk drives. It was even before the floppy disks. (I'd) largely do programming with Basic. I was kind of fascinated with the computing power and what that could do and what that would mean. It was just an enchanting device for me.
What were you doing with it? Were you playing simple games or ...?
Just my math homework, playing around writing programs. [I was] just fascinated with the machine that could do so many computations so quickly. At the beginning of the genesis of the PC industry, it seemed like there was going to be a lot of excitement with the device like this, as it went into medicine and business and education and entertainment. Of course, nobody knew exactly what would happen, but it was a very exciting time.
When do you think you realised that this device was going to go from more of a niche device to something that almost everyone would have at some point?
I dropped out of college because that's what I thought would happen. So, that for me was in 1984 and I started a company around that idea, believing that more and more people would know how to use PCs, that they would become easier to use, that even people could buy them without going to a store. We had a sense for it in the early '80s but certainly couldn't say we imagined it. It is just the way it happened.
"That original PC in 1981 was certainly a pivotal moment because it caused this ecosystem to start to flourish and allowed all sorts of companies to participate ..." -- Michael Dell
Do you recall any specific event or anything that dawned on you in back around that time? I mean, you must have had to sell the idea of dropping out of college to your parents.
I didn't really sell them on it. They weren't really in favour of it. So I was, you know, rebellious -- an 18, 19-year-old and just did what I wanted to do and all worked out OK.
It seems to have. So to ask you to speculate a little bit, one of the things that helped the rise of the PC 25 years ago was the way that IBM gave up control over certain parts of the PC to other companies, allowing Microsoft to license the operating system. Can you sense what the world might be like if that hadn't happened, if IBM had maintained very tight control of that device?
Yeah, it's kind of interesting. I mean, that was clearly a big factor because what it developed was an ecosystem which became and is still today incredibly important in the evolution of computing, not only in the personal computer sense, but even in the enterprise. Before that time you actually had all sorts of proprietary or semi-proprietary PCs, and the cry out from the community of users was, "Hey, how do we get a standard so that we can develop applications one time and they work on any kind of device?"
I think you could argue that the market would have been much smaller, would have developed much more slowly. Parts would have been much more expensive and computing would have never had the impact that it's had now. You could also say that if IBM and Microsoft hadn't done that, somebody else would have come along and did it, so I would believe that as well.
That original PC in 1981 was certainly a pivotal moment because it caused this ecosystem to start to flourish and allowed all sorts of companies to participate, whether they were developing add-in cards or software applications or chipsets or extending the architecture in new ways and bringing products to market that provided value, provided an alternative.