By Harry McCracken | Friday, March 25, 2011 at 2:45 pm
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the post-PC era. After Steve Jobs repeatedly described the iPad and other Apple products as post-PC devices at this month’s iPad 2 launch, I decided that the post-PC era is already well underway–and that it’s less about the PC going away and more about it being joined by a bevy of other gizmos, from phones to tablets to car-dashboard gadgetry. In other words, the PC is being replaced not by something but by everything. I wrote about that in this TIME.com column.
But after I finished that piece, I kept thinking about the whole subject. And I decided that the PC is, in some respects, going to be replaced by one thing, in a variety of versions.
Return with me now for a moment to, oh, let’s say 1975. A personal computer was a box with switches and lights–and, often, no screen. Phones never had screens. (They frequently had rotary dials, but that’s beside the point.) TVs…had screens! But they were dumb screens which didn’t know how to do much more than pluck over-the-air broadcasts out of the sky. If you were very lucky, they knew how to play Pong.
Today, a personal computer is a screen. It has an Internet connection, runs apps, and uses a keyboard and pointing device for input. A phone is a screen. It has an Internet connection, runs apps, and uses a touchscreen and/or physical buttons for input. A TV is still a screen, and while many TVs don’t yet have internet connections and run apps, some do and all will soon enough. TVs also tend to have lousy remotes, but that situation is improving.
You can make phone calls on your PC. You can watch TV on your phone. You can run a word processor on your phone. Their emphases are different, but the basic tasks they’re capable of accomplishing are identical.
E-readers have screens, Internet connections, and apps. Cars have screens, Internet connections, and apps. Gizmos that haven’t quite been invented yet will have screens, Internet connections, and apps.
All these devices are now variations on one theme–just as a sporty coupe, a midsized sedan, a pickup truck, and an SUV are variations on a theme. We need a collective name for them.
I used to maintain that people would someday stop calling their phones “phones” and start referring to them as “PCs.” Maybe they will. But “personal computing” is too limiting a name for what all these machines are capable of. (If the PC was invented today, we’d never call it the PC, any more than we’d call a modern phone a phone if it didn’t have 135 years of history behind it.)
So how about just calling them all screens? It’s accurate. It’s unbiased. It’s comprehensive. And if it were common terminology, the debate about whether one sort of device was going to kill another sort of device would finally end.
Maybe I’ll start knowingly using it and see if anyone pays attention.
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