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Bill Gates Says “The PC Is The Tablet”. Is He Right?



Photo courtesy Microsoft

In an interview with the BBC about his philanthropic work, Microsoft chairman and co-founder Bill Gates was asked about something non-philathropic: living in a post-PC era of smartphones and tablets. His response? Well, let’s just say it wasn’t a surprise.

Via Business Insider:

“The PC is the tablet. You’ll see devices and say ‘is that a PC, is that a phone?’ The words will change because innovation is happening so fast.”

No shock here. Bill Gates’ bread and butter is baked and churned in PCs. Microsoft’s “Windows Everywhere” mantra really means “make everything a PC”. Microsoft’s tablet and smartphone efforts until recently were about making PCs in tablet and smartphone shapes. Of course, he’s going to want everything to be a PC. But is he right?

From a Certain Point of View…

In the larger sense, yes, absolutely. We’re looking at devices today that are more powerful than what were called PCs a few years ago. My iPhone 4 has more computing power than my first Tablet PC. Tablets, smartphones, and even eReaders are all very personal computers.

But post-PC does not mean “not a PC”. As I stated in my earlier look at Understanding Post-PC: “In simplest terms, a post-PC device is a PC without the baggage.” It’s not about whether a device is a personal computer, but whether it is weighted down by support for the outdated. It’s about legacy and complexity vs. simplicity. Ironically, I believe Microsoft has actually drawn the clearest example of this split.

Windows Mobile is PC, Windows Phone is Post-PC

Windows Mobile was only a decade old when it entered retirement yet it was saddled by legacy, pretty much from the start. Its interface intentionally mimicked the Windows desktop operating system, even advertising the “familiar start menu” in marketing material. Its advancement lagged over the years as it was held back by support for aging applications that often required different versions for different processors. Windows Mobile, as its original “Pocket PC” name indicates, is a microcosm of what it means to be “PC”.

Enter Windows Phone. After the iPhone launched, Windows Mobile became a PC drowning in a post-PC ocean. Microsoft tried to keep it above water but it was too heavy with legacy support. So they let it sink and set sail with a new ship: Windows Phone. Despite the continuation of the version numbering, Windows Phone is a completely new platform with a fresh interface that leaves everything from Windows Mobile behind. Strict hardware requirements left no room for the kind of application fragmentation seen with WinMo. Slow launch or not, Windows Phone exemplifies “post-PC”.

Tablet PC vs. Post-PC Tablet, Revisited

Understanding what post-PC means and that Microsoft can indeed adopt a post-PC approach, let’s return to the status of tablets as PC or post-PC. We’ve heard someone from Intel state in no uncertain terms that Windows 8 for ARM processors will not support legacy software. That was countered by a statement from Microsoft to the contrary. The extent of truthfulness in either statement is debatable, but if Microsoft wants to compete in the tablet market (or rather, be recognized as a competitor in the tablet market, which they’ve been in for years), the truth needs to be somewhere in-between.

I appreciate the fact that some people need to use applications that are 20 years old, but seriously, you know any 10- to 20-year old application is designed for a desktop-style WIMP (window, icon, menu, pointer) interface. Trying to use that on a tablet requires an interface compromise which means a compromised user experience. We saw it with Tablet PCs and, as much as I love them, that approach didn’t work out so well. To paraphrase Josh, Microsoft needs a clean install with tablets.

Running legacy apps in an emulator or separate window with a throwback interface would be fine, great even, but the main interface cannot be restricted to accommodate that. Windows 8 for ARM-based tablets (or x86-based tablets for that matter) needs to be lean and clean. That means no compromises with the interface due to legacy support. That would make them post-PC tablets. For anyone who needs to run legacy software directly, there are Tablet PCs.

In an age of cloud computing and booming new software development, supporting old software on new form factors simply cannot be an obstacle. If the platform draws users, it will draw developers. For every old application that won’t work, a replacement designed for the interface will arise. I’m confident the Tablet PC software developers who are still in business will gladly rework their wares for ARM-based Windows tablets. If we’re lucky, we’ll see another tablet software boom as we saw in the mid-2000’s. If we’re really lucky, it will be bigger than before. If we’re really, really lucky, it will last.



  1. Alain Chappaz

    05/19/2011 at 9:54 pm

    Microsoft may need a clean install, but if so,it better be an approach that allows me to use my machine as productively as my current ones. I need *two* different kinds of machines, ones for fun and ones for work. 

  2. Nguyễn Đăng Quang

    05/20/2011 at 12:35 am

     I am a Tablet PC addict and an tablet PC evangelist. This really an thoughtful article.

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