Understanding “Post-PC”

Following Steve Jobs’ announcement that we are in a “post-PC” era, a lot of people have fallen over themselves to explain what that means. Unfortunately most of them never bothered to figure out what “post-PC” means, so I thought I’d supply you with an explanation that references previous discussions on the topic.

Steve Jobs in May 2007

In 2007, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates sat down for an open interview with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher for AllThingD. Among the topics were devices that would arise in five years, which coincidentally would be this year, 2011. Gates had his vision of voice, ink, and keyboard, which at one time would have been called a Tablet PC, but which he now calls a netbook. Jobs’ vision was less specific, but clear in one way: the distinction between PC and post-PC devices.

Steve: It will be the PC maybe used a little more tightly coupled with some back-end Internet services and some things like that. And, of course, PCs are going mobile in an ever greater degree. So I think the PC is going to continue. This general purpose device is going to continue to be with us and morph with us, whether it’s a tablet or a notebook or, you know, a big curved desktop that you have at your house or whatever it might be. So I think that’ll be something that most people have, at least in this society. In others, maybe not, but certainly in this one.

But then there’s an explosion that’s starting to happen in what you call post-PC devices, right? You can call the iPod one of them. There’s a lot of things that are not. … I think there’s just a category of devices that aren’t as general purpose, that are really more focused on specific functions, whether they’re phones or iPods or Zunes or what have you. And I think that category of devices is going to continue to be very innovative and we’re going to see lots of them.

Notice how in this vision of the future, which is now our present, there are both PCs and post-PC devices. These post-PC devices are not replacements for PCs. Rather, they are computing devices that are more focused on specific usage scenarios and less general purpose. Think multi-genre, not generic. He calls the iPod one such device (as well as the Zune), which fits with Jobs recent claim that the iPad is their third post-PC blockbuster after the iPod and iPhone.

Jobs returns to the subject of post-PC devices later in the interview in question looking towards user interfaces in their future, our present. He describes post-PC devices as holding potential for a “clean slate” without legacy applications. This presents an opportunity for a “radical rethinking” in how post-PC devices are operated.

Thanks to iOS, Jobs’ vision of post-PC devices has come to fruition. It has nothing to do with not needing PCs or not caring about specs. It’s about a fresh start without having to support the PC legacy. They’re not held back by adherence to the WIMP interface (window, icon, menu, pointer). They don’t have to be backward compatible to every application ever made. They don’t have to be good at everything at the expense of being great at some things. They are PCs without the baggage of PCs.

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Ray Ozzie in October 2010

That “baggage” is a key element of Ray Ozzie’s message to Microsoft and the world following his departure from the company. In his open letter, there is a section subtitled “Imagining A ‘Post-PC’ World”. It is a deep and profound message for which a summary cannot do justice, but his core message is the threat of complexity. He warns that adding layers and layers of functionality creates crushing complexity that will grow to unsustainable levels. He states flatly, “Complexity kills.” He does not state directly that a post-PC world is free of this, but it can be inferred that his vision of a post-PC world does not include a level of complexity that “sucks the life out of users, developers and IT”.

Steve Jobs in June 2010

Jobs spoke about the post-PC era again with Walt and Kara at D8. This time he compared PCs to trucks and post-PC devices, specifically his iPad to cars. His analogy was a bit vague and incomplete, but it boils down to the PC being general purpose device, while post-PC devices are more tailored. A big truck can get you from point A to point B and more cargo, but it won’t be as easy to navigate through city streets as a compact, nor will it outrace a sports car.

Intel in September 2010

Rob Enderle reported that Intel showed their preparedness for the post-PC era at their 2010 Developer Conference. Beyond the PC, they were looking at supporting automotive computers to help avoid accidents, TVs that can find and cache web content, and smartphones that are, well, smarter. Again, their plans have nothing to do with abandoning PCs, but rather supporting specific-use devices.

Summary

While pundits and analysts have their own ideas of what post-PC means, the message from folks at the top of theindustry – at Apple, Microsoft, and Intel – is that the post-PC era means simplicity and specificity. Yes, an iPad may appear to be a general purpose computer, but it is more accurate to call it a multi-purpose computer. It can do many things but is not meant to do everything.

Do specs matter in the post-PC era? To a degree, but going back to Ray Ozzie’s message, specs are a layer of complexity. Users and developers should not have to focus on whether a certain amount of memory is needed to run an app. It should be as simple as this app works on this device. It’s not that specs don’t matter; it’s that we shouldn’t have to think so much about them.

Tablet PC vs. Post-PC Tablet

Fujitsu Lifebook T4410 Tablet PC

Bringing it back to our area of specialty, the difference between PC and post-PC is what separates the Tablet PC from the new generation of tablets. As the name makes apparent, the Tablet PC is a PC. While the early Tablet PC spec did call for stripping of legacy hardware, no such requirement was applied to the software. To the contrary, a layer of functionality was added to allow text to be entered by pen or voice on Windows applications.

By contrast, Apple’s approach to tablets was to strip down Mac OS X to a form that was first introduced on the iPhone and then on the iPad. Linux-based Android and WebOS likewise exhibit a strip-down approach, while QNX (for the BlackBerry Playbook) was created for specific-purpose devices. Based on the ideas of Jobs, Ozzie and Intel, this simplicity is what makes these new tablets post-PC, while, regardless of name, the Tablet PC is not.

As a consequence, this means tablets based on Windows 8 will not be post-PC devices. If they run the same version of Windows that runs on desktops and laptops and offer nothing more than another layer of complexity on top of the standard WIMP interface, they will be PCs. There’s nothing wrong with that. By all of the above standards, PCs still have their place in the post-PC era. Post-PC does not mean we throw out PCs. But as long as Microsoft’s tablet offering lugs around the baggage and complexity of the PC, by definition, it will not be post-PC.

Can Tablet PCs be more post-PC?

One thing that likely scares Steve Jobs about the post-PC era is that his company was born in the PC era. While Mac sales continue to climb, their revenue and profit increasingly comes from their post-PC products. Changing the company’s name from “Apple Computer, Inc.” to simply “Apple, Inc.” signaled their shift away from the PC era. By his standard, Macs still have a place in the post-PC world, but that place is less important. Macs will always be general purpose computers, but that doesn’t mean they can’t become more post-PC.

If shedding complexity is a key element of the post-PC world, then Macs have been trending this way for years. The iMac did away with floppy disks and embraced USB at the expense of other ports. Support for the old PowerPC processors ended with Mac OS X Snow Leopard. As users embrace various interface elements of the iPad, Apple is free to introduce alternatives to the traditional WIMP interface, as they are with Mac OS X Lion. By the above standards, the Mac will never truly be post-PC, but it has gotten closer to it.

What this means for us is that Tablet PCs can also become more post-PC, perhaps even to the point of being competitive, but making Windows work on ARM processors isn’t going to cut it, nor will adding the Metro UI on top of it. If it’s not perfectly clear, I cannot agree more strongly with Ray Ozzie on the issue of complexity in the post-PC era. Tablet PCs cannot be truly post-PC, any more than Macs can, but they can get closer to it by shedding complexity instead of only adding it.

Conclusion

In simplest terms, a post-PC device is a PC without the baggage. No need to support decades of legacy apps and outdated programming practices. No need to adhere to the WIMP interface. No need to be able to do everything at the expense of being great at some things. Specs are not irrelevant, but they aren’t the key metric in determining what a post-PC device can do. Most importantly, the post-PC era does not signal an end to the PC. To the contrary, PCs will be vital to managing our growing collection of post-PC devices. However, the era of multiple PCs is winding down as more people adopt post-PC devices for specific purposes and rely on a single PC as a central hub. While the major players are preparing for this future in different ways, make no mistake, they are all preparing for it. Whether a particular approach is effective or enacted in time is another matter.

  

Comments

  1. DNel says

    Interesting article. The last statement is huge…”enacted in time” If you wait six months to a year to put out a new post-pc product, you’ve lost.

  2. GoodThings2Life says

    Great article, Sumocat! I completely agree on most points and descriptions made.

    Interesting you mention about Steve Jobs being scared of the Mac losing relevance for them. Honestly, the only reason its sales have increased in recent years is directly related to Windows Vista’s failures and people’s interest in Apple’s other offerings. You know, “Hey, these iWhatevers are great, we should check out their Macbooks… afterall, we hate Vista.”

    Anyway, I think in a Post-PC era, the PC’s in use will still be the ones that people are most familiar with and can find the most compatibility with, which is Windows. Apple’s products already support it, and few others support Mac directly, so the thought of the Macbook going away is very appealing to someone like myself. Ironically, it’s a move that would ultimately make me like Apple more. But then, I’ve been saying for years now– Apple is a great electronics/gadgets company but a horrible computer company.

    As for the Windows front, I don’t doubt that Windows will continue to dominate for years regardless of how much Apple does. People talk about the millions of iWhatevers sold and in use, but they overlook the HUNDREDS of millions of PC’s that are sold. Windows will continue, I believe, to be the work powerhouse system with the mobile platforms like Android and iOS and WP7 becoming more prevalent to users’ portability uses.

    Interesting reading back on the last few years though… I’ll give Jobs credit for one thing… he is VERY consistent about his vision. Microsoft changes theirs based on whatever is happening at the moment and clearly lacks an overarching goal. It’s going to be a huge burden for them if Ballmer is at the helm with this approach. Gates had a vision and was willing to adapt as needed, but he pushed the company forward.

  3. Cuhulin says

    I am not so sure about the future of windows. Sure, there will be a lot of machines out there with it — there were a lot of DOS machines when Windows was being adopted too, but that era ended. The installed base is larger, so it may take a bit longer, but Microsoft’s size will not save it unless they find a way to remain competitive.

    You are right about Ballmer, though. He’s a decent corporate manager — just about right for a Proctor & Gamble or some other more traditional business. He has proven, however, that he has no idea how his market works now or where it will be going. Rather, he sees the big numbers from large corporate sales and thinks all is well, while Apple, Google and its OEMs, and HP or RIM all are eating away at his market.

    It’s rather ironic that Jobs is hailed as a visionary now when, in many ways, it was his vision that lost the battle to Microsoft in the 1980′s. When IBM and Microsoft had color, Jobs insisted on black and white for the Mac. When IBM and Microsoft had larger screens, accommodating people with older eyes, Jobs had a 9″ display on the Mac. I think he is making the same mistake when it comes to handwriting (although the recent patent says that may just be misinformation), but Microsoft is not there as a competitor. It will be interesting to see who emerges.

  4. Alain Chappaz says

    “But as long as Microsoft’s tablet offering lugs around the baggage and complexity of the PC, by definition, it will not be post-PC.”

    I *want* the baggage. Don’t get me wrong, I like my Android mini-tablet, but it’s not very helpful beyond my couch…. Even with the attendant complexity and baggage of Windows 7, a Tablet PC (or convertible) allows me much more flexibility and horsepower. My message to OEM’s is: “don’t give me what you *think* I want, give me what I *really* want…”

  5. solomon_rex says

    Good summary, but you didn’t mention the xbox. MS has been fighting the PC/post-PC war internally for a decade. And losing.

    What I like about Ozzie’s letter and what a lot of people miss living in the US is the extent to which this is a cultural phenomenon. There are billions of people who will never need a PC. We may even get to the point soon where literacy is irrelevant for interaction.

  6. Anonymous says

    It took a while, but it suddenly hit me.

    Microsoft already had a post-PC concept that they didn’t bother to follow up on for whatever reason. We called it…Courier.

    If you ask me “Why do you own a Tablet PC, and not a conventional laptop?”, the answer largely boils down to OneNote. That one program has done wonders for managing information and generally going paperless, especially since with the right hardware, I can easily input things that would be a total pain to do via keyboard.

    But for that one purpose, the Tablet PC is gross overkill. I’ve come to appreciate its PC-level functionality, but I still wouldn’t mind having a smaller companion device that was more focused in its purpose. The Courier would’ve fit that spot nicely for me, a digital notebook.

    I’m pretty sure they can make it now with current technology-all-day battery life without a slice battery adding more weight, the active pen input I depend on, and if those mirasol screens are all they’re touted to be, they could help deliver on battery life while being easier on the eyes (being reflective like e-ink and not backlit). ARM CPUs have enough performance for basic tasks while being power-efficient. All it would really have to do is let me work with my OneNote notebooks; anything else is extra, though I would appreciate a Web browser.

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