Hey, They’re All Just Screens

By  |  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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9 Comments


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9 Comments For This Post

  1. Joebar Says:

    Screens? Not always. More accurately they are displays, or more like openings to remote content, how about… windows?!?… LOL! ;-)

  2. Simon Bramfitt Says:

    There is some merit in calling it a screen, but I think you are looking at things the wrong way.

    You can take a phone like the Motorola Atrix and dock it with a larger mobile or fixed screen and insulting convert it into a laptop or desktop PC. Changing the screen size does not change the core capability of the device which is to communicate, create or display information; but what are you going to call it when the screen goes away?

    if you want a universal name to describe this family of devices, can I suggest that you look to the past and revive "Terminal" as a better, and longer lasting, name for the class of devices that lie at the end of the network.

  3. @GrumpusNation Says:

    To borrow from Kilgore Trout, how 'bout "leaks"?

  4. Brandon Backlin Says:

    How about "Windows"…?

    Oh wait, already taken!

  5. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Bottom line, the core device IS a Personal Computer that just has more and more personal electronic devices added to IT. In other words, PC's are swallowing OTHER personal electronic devices, not the other way around.

  6. @tomsatwicz Says:

    Spot on. I tend to think about it as though screens have been attached to everything imaginable (and then some). In addition to what you've mentioned we have screens on the back of airplane seats and at the gas pump. We even have screens replacing people at the bank and grocery store.

  7. Dogcowuk Says:

    You're onto something but I think you miss one key aspect about those 'screens' : their size. The late Mark Weiser (one of the most influential researchers in ubiquitous computing) classified them into pads, tabs and boards – check out his seminal article "the computer of the 21st century" (at http://www.ubiq.com/hypertext/weiser/SciAmDraft3….. In hindsight, his predictions were spot on: we now have pads (phones), tabs (tablets) and – to a lesser degree – boards (large displays, TVs, etc.). Now, I guess we only need a good way to make them all work together seamlessly and they'll 'weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life'…

    PS: How long before we all have our personal screens implanted into our visual cortex to render all 'external' screens obsolete? ;-)

  8. Scott Says:

    Jony Ive says the iPad becomes just a screen when you use it. So, good point.

  9. earlyhike Says:

    While I like the observation about "screens", I don't see it catching on. To me a "screen" is synonymous with a monitor or a display. That is, the reference to the face of a more complex technology behind it. As long as your phone is the source device projecting video onto your tv, car dashboard, or pc monitor there will always be a distinction between the device doing the work and the "screen" that happens to output the image.

    Now if we get to the point where everyone is carrying around dumb displays which allow us to simply interact with 100% cloud functionality THEN I could see a "screen" term taking off.