Among the many ear-catching bon mots issued forth from Steve Jobs recently is the assertion that we’re living in, or at the very least entering, the post-PC era. It started last year at the D8 conference, when the Apple CEO said that PCs are going to be “like trucks” in that they’ll still be around and useful for certain work, but only a smaller percentage of the users will need one. More recently at the iPad 2 launch, Jobs re-confirmed this post-PC mantra.
Of course, Apple would see it that way. Though sales of Macs continue to increase, they’re a long way from making a dent in the global market share of computers. iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads, on the other hand, enjoy a fantastic market share. They’re responsible for most of Apple’s revenue. While Android and others continue to pose stiff competition, all that revenue is spread out between Google, HTC, Motorola, Samsung, etc. All the iStuff market share is revenue for Apple – they make the devices, the software, and own the app store. My point is this: Apple isn’t just observing the shift away from PCs, it’s actively trying its damndest to make it happen.
Is the PC Really Going Away?
The irony of Jobs proclaiming the end of the PC era has been rightly pointed out by gdgt’s Dave Schumaker, who noted that the first thing you have to do with it is hook it up to a PC. Snarky comments about Apple’s insistence of making iTunes more prolific aside, it is worth examining whether or not the rise of smartphones and tablets and the like are going to dramatically change the computing landscape.
It may seem like a scary thought for a publication that calls itself PCWorld, but I think the idea of PCs becoming “like trucks” is probably overblown. At least for quite some time. Yes, tablets are affecting PC sales, in that people are buying tablets or new, more powerful smartphones as “companion PCs” more and more. This is impacting the market for inexpensive, small, long-battery-life netbooks and ultraportables. It’s not really supplanting the PC, however.
Key to the notion of the average consumer using a post-PC device like a tablet or smartphone for their daily computing needs is the idea that the only real advantage a PC has is its ability to do “work” more efficiently. Nobody right now would make the argument that a more traditional PC isn’t a better productivity tool. A physical keyboard, dramatically more RAM, multitasking with drag-and-drop and multiple windows, greater storage, and all the other perks of a larger form factor and higher power draw really do make a huge difference in productivity. Is productivity just for cubicle drones and businessmen, though? I would argue that it isn’t. The same features that make a PC great for the office are things that make it great for artists, students, writers, gamers, social media junkies, and more.
For tablets to catch up, they need to do more than just get more powerful and solve the text entry problem. The capabilities of a larger system that draws 20 or 30 watts are always going to be several steps ahead of a thinner, more portable system that requires only a few watts to operate. As time goes on and tablets get more powerful and capable, so too will laptops and desktops. Tablets will rise to meet our current computing needs, but our computing needs will evolve, and some of them will only be met by larger, more powerful PCs.
Even Apple seems to acknowledge that the “post-PC world” will still rely heavily on a personal computer. Sure, the company could stop requiring that initial iTunes setup, but consider the new AirPlay features of iOS 4.3 Apple knows that all those videos, photos, and albums you have simply won’t fit on an iPad: you’ll keep that stuff on your PC and stream it throughout your home.
The PC Isn’t Dying, It’s Just Being Redefined
Just what is a “personal computer”, anyway? Is it defined by the operating system it uses – Windows, MacOS, or Linux? Does a physical keyboard make it a PC? A processor that uses more than some arbitrary amount of power? Is it size? It can’t be size – a MacBook Air is a personal computer, and it’s about the same size as an iPad. You could easily argue that today’s smartphones are personal computers, as they’re easily as powerful as the PCs of five or six years ago.
The world isn’t moving away from the PC, it’s just transitioning from the PC being defined as a “personal computer” to “pervasive computing.” Computers will fill our lives with specialized capabilities in various form factors, sizes, and locations. Our lives will be seamlessly infused with computers that are tailored to, and fulfill the maximum capabilities of, their processing and storage capabilities. In our pockets we’ll have computers that can make phone calls and run the kinds of applications that work well on small screens, and it will have all the capabilities you can get from the tiny power draw required for that device. That will scale up all the way up through computers that sit on our under our desks, to the huge servers that power the cloud services and applications we all use, drawing so much power they give the local power company a headache.
What we’re moving toward is not a world where the PC is a piece of specialized work equipment only needed by, say, one in five people. Instead we’re headed to a world where computing is everywhere. We’ll have PCs at home and at the office. Tablets in our bags. Smartphones in our pockets. Computers in our car dashboards and in the back of its seats. It’s not so much a “post-PC” era as a “post-PC only” era.