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.
I’m always highly skeptical of any product that comes my way that’s supposed to solve all my problems in a particular area. Cloud computing was a great example of this as I had already gone through most of the marketing spiel previously with Software as a Service and was stunned when it made its triumphant return with a few additional bells and whistles. Granted I’m coming around to the idea since the services have matured but I still don’t believe its the panacea to all of your IT woes as many of its advocates will have you believe. Of course this kind of hype talk is always around and the current buzzword du jour is the coming of the “Post-PC era”, a time where the personal computer is replaced by tablets and smartphones. Needless to say I’m highly skeptical of this kind of marketing malarkey,which in no small part is due to the fact that Steve Jobs has been the one to start spruiking the term.
The idea seems to be steaming from the recent growth in non-PC devices that replicate certain PC functionalities. For example the mobile web experience has matured significantly over the past 3 years with many web sites (including this one) creating separate sites designed for the mobile platform. Additionally native applications on phones are becoming increasingly more capable with many functions that used to take a fully fledged desktop or laptop now available in the palm of your hand. Truly the capability explosion that mobile devices have undergone in the past few years is quite extraordinary and extrapolating that out would have you believe that in a few short years these devices will be as capable as their PC cousins, if not more so.
However I just can’t see a future where the PC isn’t around.
You see these mobile devices (phones, tablets and what have you) are primarily consumption devices. This is because the platform lends itself to this quite readily as creation on these devices is quite a chore when compared to its bigger, tethered brethren. For instance I’ve tried several times to write blog posts on the run using my smartphone (even one with a physical keyboard) and the experience has been nothing short of atrocious. Sure hammering out a tweet or 10 is easy, 140 characters doesn’t take long at all, but any long interaction with my phone is quite a laborious exercise. Thus most applications on these devices are centered around consuming something rather than creating, simply because these devices aren’t really made for using longer than 5~10 minutes.
But I can the post-PC crazies saying “but wait you could pair your tablet with a keyboard and mouse thus solving this issue!”. Well yes, of course you could but in reality aren’t you just replacing your laptop for a tablet/smartphone with a giant dock attached to it? Realistically you’re just replacing the innards of your current PC with something that’s, I’ll admit, far more portable but also a whole lot less capable. You’d probably find that there would be beefed up versions of these mobile devices available, sacrificing battery life and weight to give you a little more power. That or they’d rely on massive back end infrastructure, in essence going back to the good old days of mainframes and thin terminals (defeating the whole post-pc era idea completely).
Are there things that PCs should give way to? Of course, the fact that mobile devices are limited primarily to consuming content rather than producing it means that the consumer experience on these devices is quite good. Whilst I may use several services from my PC the vast majority of my time spent on social media is through my iPhone simply because it’s easy and available. It also makes for a great travel companion when I don’t want to lug my Macbook Pro around and only need access to a few files like itineraries or other information. Does that mean they can replace my PC outright? Hell no, but there are many use cases where I’d prefer to be using my mobile rather than a desktop PC.
I think there will be a few people who will be able to replace their current PCs, whatever their form factor, with the new wave of “post-pc era” devices. Similarly there are also a similar number who will never have a need for such a device and will continue along as they are now. In the middle there will be those who use both, supplementing their PC with additional devices that suit a particular purpose they have in mind. That middle sector is where I believe most of the future users will reside, using the most appropriate device for the task at hand. Over time I believe our view of what constitutes a PC will shift but there will always be a place for a dedicated computing device, even if that ends up just being the horsepower driving the services behind the post-pc devices.