By Harry McCracken | 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.