There’s no doubt that we’re at a crossroads when it comes to personal computing. For decades we have lived with the norm that computers conformed to a strict set of requirements such as having a mouse, keyboard and monitor as their primary interface devices. The paradigm seemed unbreakable as whilst touchscreens an motion controllers were a reality for the longest time they just failed to catch on with the tried and true peripherals dominating our user experience. In this time however the amount of computing power that we’ve been able to make mobile changed the way many people did computing and speculation began to run wild about the future, a place that had evolved past the personal computer.
Taking a step back for a second to look at the term “Post PC era” I could find where the term originated. Many point to Steve Jobs as being the source for the term but I’ve found people referencing it for well over a decade, long before Jobs started mentioning it in reference to the iPad and how it was changing the PC game. The definition of the term also seems somewhat lax with some defining it as a future where each niche has its own device whereas others see it more as straight up abolishing of desktop computers in favour of general purpose portable devices. The lack of a formal definition means that everyone has their own idea of what a Post PC era will entail, but all of them seem to be missing the crux of the matter.
What actually constitutes a Personal Computer?
In the most general terms a PC is a general purpose computing device that’s usable by an end user. The term stems from a time when most computers were massive machines, well out of the reach of any individual (both practically and financially). Personal computers then were the first computing devices designed for mass consumption rather than scientific or business purposes. The term “Post PC era” then suggests that we’ve moved past the PC onto something else for our computing needs, meaning our current definition of PC is no longer suitable for the technology that we’re using.
However, whilst the Post PC era might be somewhat loosely defined, many envision a future where something like a tablet PC is the basis of everyone’s computing. For all intents and purposes that is a personal computer as it’s a general purpose computing device that’s designed for mass consumption by an end user. Post-PC era extremists might take the definition further and say that the Post PC era will see a multitude of devices with specific purposes in mind but I can’t imagine someone wanting to buy a new device for each of the applications they want to access. Indeed the trend is very much the opposite with smartphones becoming quite capable of outright replacing a PC for many people, especially if it’s something like the Motorola Atrix that’s specifically designed with that purpose in mind.
Realistically people are seeing the Post-PC era as a Post Desktop Computer Era.
Now this is a term I’m much more comfortable with as it more aptly explains the upcoming trends in personal computing. Many people are finding that tablet PCs do all the things that their desktop PCs do with the added benefit of being portable and easy to use. Of course there are some tasks that tablets and other Post PC era devices aren’t quite capable of doing and these use cases could be easily covered off with docking stations that provide additional functionality. These could even go as far as providing additional features like more processing power, additional storage and better input peripherals. Up until recently such improvements were in the realms of fantasy, but with interconnects like Thunderbolt it’s entirely possible to provide capabilities that used to be reserved for internal components like PCIe devices.
The world of personal computing is changing and we’ve undergone several paradigm shifts in the last couple years that have changed the computing landscape dramatically. The notion that we’ll never touch a desktop again in the near future is an easy extrapolation to make (especially if you’re selling tablet computers) but it does ignore current trends in favour of an idealized future. More I feel we’ll be moving to an ubiquitous computing environment, one where our experience isn’t so dependent on the platform and those platforms will be far more flexible than they currently are. Whether the Post PC era vision or my ubiquitous computing idea comes to fruition remains to be seen, but I’d bet good money that we’re heading towards the latter than the former.