Hey, They’re All Just PCs

By  |  Monday, August 22, 2011 at 3:31 am

For one of the most successful, profitable, all-around-important inventions of all time, the PC has never gotten much respect. People have been announcing that its time is over almost since its time began. The newest round of debate was sparked by the thirtieth anniversary of the IBM PC earlier this month, particularly after IBM’s Mark Dean, who helped design the first IBM PC, wrote a blog post that referred to the post-PC era and compared the PC to vinyl and vacuum tubes. And it really caught fire last week when HP announced that it probably wants to get out of the PC business.

Now, it’s certainly news when the world’s largest PC company decides that it’s no longer happy being a PC company at all–even if it’s only coming to the same conclusion that a fair number of Wall Street analysts reached years ago. It helped to prompt Microsoft VP of Corporate Communications Frank X. Shaw to blog contending that we live in a “PC plus” era rather than a “post-PC” one, and arguing that smartphones, tablets, and e-readers are “companions” to the PC.

Shaw points to some examples of articles throwing around the phrase “post-PC,” but doesn’t mention the guy and the company who have done the most to popularize it lately…

(Steve Jobs, incidentally, didn’t coin the phrase “post-PC era.” I don’t know who did, but here’s an MIT professor using it way back in 1999.)

Now, talking about a post-PC era is one thing. But it’s kind of silly that a Microsoft honcho must refute another idea, as Shaw does in his post: that the PC is dead. Of course it isn’t–it’s just that whenever a technology product category seems to be mature, tech pundits love to say it’s toast. And nothing gets declared dead more than the PC does. Here, for instance, is an InfoWorld story commenting on how fashionable it is to declare the PC dead–from 1999.

No, the PC isn’t dead or dying. Devices that are recognizably similar to today’s PCs will be with us for a long time. Decades from now, many of them will run Microsoft software. (Please, let it be something other than Windows XP.)

But Shaw’s notion of a “PC plus” era displays unavoidable Microsoftian bias. He says that smartphones and tablets are good at a “subset” of what PCs do–basically communications and consumption–and not so hot at creation and collaboration. He appears thinks of them as useful devices, but inherently secondary to the PC as we know it.

If PCs are superior to smartphones and tablets for creation and collaboration, it’s for two main reasons: they’ve got large, comfy QWERTY keyboards, and they’ve got more powerful productivity apps (such as, oh, Microsoft Office). The first virtue may be a plus for PCs forever; the second one is only a point in favor of the PC until the software on smartphones and tablets starts to catch up in terms of essential features and innovative ideas. Which it will.

And already, this “the PC is better for creation and collaboration” theory is starting to crack around the edges. Even now, I prefer to do e-mail on an iPad over a Windows PC or Mac–including composing messages–simply because the iPad is free of the cruft and complexity and distractions of traditional PCs. As for smartphones, they’re as profoundly useful as PCs right now–just in different ways. (The most useful device is the one you have with you, and it’s possible to take a phone many places where a PC wouldn’t be practical.) It’s as logical to think of a Windows PC as a companion to a smartphone as vice versa. Or simply to think of them as equals.

Me, I’m thinking that we don’t live in a post-PC era or a PC plus era. I’ve always preferred to define “PC” loosely–I consider Macs and Linux boxes to be PCs, which is why I prissily refer to “Windows PCs” when most people would simply say “PCs.” But there’s no reason why the definition of “personal computer” must be limited to devices that are recognizable as traditional desktops and laptops. It’s always been elastic, and it’s always changed to fit new kinds of devices.

There was a time when a personal computer was a box with switches on the front. Then they got screens and keyboards–and we still called them PCs.

A few years later, computers arrived that you could fold up and take anywhere. We called those PCs, too.

Eventually, they ditched the keyboard in some cases. And they were still PCs.

Smartphones and tablets are intensely personal–certainly more so than a desktop PC that an IT department puts on your desk at work. They’re computers, by any reasonable definition of the word. That makes them personal computers. (In fact, they’re what the people who invented personal computers might have built if the technology had existed at the time.)

Apple can claim that we’re in a post-PC era; Microsoft can insist that we’re in a PC-plus era. Those arguments play to those respective companies’ viewpoints and strengths. As an interested bystander, I think of this era as…the PC era. After 35 years, it’s still just getting started, and it’ll be the PC era even if it comes to be dominated by devices that look more like iPhones and iPads–or something else that hasn’t been invented yet–than they do like ThinkPads and Pavilions.

Just for fun, let’s end with a 1982 InfoWorld editorial (by the irrepresible John C. Dvorak) that wonders if the good times are over for the PC business. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now…



8 Comments For This Post

  1. lunarflame17 Says:

    "Smartphones and tablets are intensely personal–certainly more so than a desktop PC that an IT department puts on your desk at work. They’re computers, by any reasonable definition of the word. That makes them personal computers. (In fact, they’re what the people who invented personal computers might have built if the technology had existed at the time.)"

    I wholeheartedly agree with this. In the past six months I've bought a Windows laptop and an iPad, and of the two, I would definitely say that the iPad is much more personal. And it's definitely a computer. So why isn't it considered a personal computer?

  2. The_Heraclitus Says:

    It isn't considered a PC as it cannot take over all general purpose functions, YET. They might in the future. An no, I don't mean JUST what YOU use a PC for. That isn't relevant.

  3. Bob Van Valzah Says:

    I think it's reasonably accurate to say that we're entering a post-PC world, but I also think arguing about labels misses a couple of key points.

    One point Harry touched on is that phones and tablets are "intensely personal." People carry them everywhere and develop almost emotional attachments to them. They become personal in a way that stationary PCs don't.

    But arguing over device labels also misses a dramatic power shift that's been happening slowly. People have always bought "home PCs" considering interoperability with work or school systems. The enterprise IT department set up servers and gave you a machine that would work with them when you arrived for your first day on the job. If you wanted your own PC at home to work with enterprise servers, you'd better start with a similar setup.

    The power shift is that employees are now arriving for the first day of work with their PCs (smartphones, tablets, laptops) expecting to use them with enterprise servers. I've seen brand new company-issued PCs sitting in boxes when savvy new employees bring their own PCs.

    There have always been separate home and enterprise PC markets and this separation will continue. In the past, the policies of the enterprise often drove buying decisions at home. The power shift is that home preferences are starting to drive enterprise IT policies.

    I've written a couple of posts with more details on my blog: http://bobvan.tumblr.com/

  4. Jim Says:

    When people say Post-PC I think what they really mean is Post-Microsoft. That's not to say that Microsoft is going away any time soon, just that the days of Microsoft defining how personal computing shall be is coming to an end. I'm looking forward to that.

  5. Paul Says:

    No – Microsoft would love to think that people believe it, that (just so they could dispute it), but we are nto talking post Microsoft. Microsoft may be the big elephant in the room due to market-share, but we are nto talking about the OS perse – When people are talking "Post PC" I believe they are talking about the type of hardware first and foremost and the type of software they are running secondly.

    Microsoft can partake in the Post-PC era, but not with them being so dependent on selling things for the "trucks" that Steve Jobs" opined about . And yes, when he thinks of "trucks" he thinks of the Mac desktop and notebook form factors as well as the Desktop OS.

  6. John W Baxter Says:

    I spent considerable time messing about with the display Fortune 16-32 (mentioned in Dvorak's article) at ComputerLand of San Diego. As far as I know, the store sold none of them. Unix, with an odd BASIC.

  7. Jeffrey Says:

    I agree with this blog post. I think that Apple has lead a very successful campaign into separating their Mac products from the Windows PC. More and more of these devices that were once considered PC-campanions are becoming PCs of their own. It is interesting to see what the future holds for how we see our devices, no matter what we may call them.

  8. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Successful as in minuscule market share? Mac vs. Windows.