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.

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.


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.


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.