By Harry McCracken | Friday, September 2, 2011 at 4:11 am
I’m beginning to think that I’m the only person on the planet who feels this way, but bear with me: I have an astoundingly elastic notion of what a PC is. I don’t think it has to run Windows. I don’t believe it needs to come in a desktop tower or a portable clamshell case. If it’s a general-purpose computing device that allows me to run third-party apps, I think of it as a PC–whether it’s a ThinkPad, a MacBook, an iPad, a Droid, or a ChromeBook.
That was the line of thinking that led me to title my TIME.com column for this week “The PC Isn’t Dying–It’s Just Evolving.” I don’t see the iPad as a not-PC; I see it as a PC that happens to come in a new form factor, run new software, and be optimized for somewhat different use case scenarios than a garden-variety laptop.
(At the moment, I’m at the IFA electronics show in Berlin, and my iPad is my PC–it’s the computer I’ve been taking to the show floor each day, and the one I’m writing these words on. And I’m…happy! In some ways happier than if I’d lugged a Windows laptop or a MacBook to the conference. More thoughts on that experience in a separate post.)
I think that the roots of my stubborn way of thinking date back to the late 1970s. The two dominant computing platforms were the TRS-80 (which I used) and the Apple II (which I despised). As different as they were, they both involved a one-piece case design, with the electronics inside a case with a built-in keyboard, that later went away. But when those platforms were joined (and eventually replaced) by others, I didn’t think of it as the PC dying. I thought of it as the PC morphing into something better.
A few decades later, I became the editor of PC World magazine, a publication which, I’ll cheerfully admit, was largely dedicated to Windows. But this experience too left me inclined to define “PC” loosely. Unlike Macworld–a sister publication which is unquestionably about Apple products–our mission statement didn’t mention any particular operating system or company. I didn’t want anyone to think that our fate was tied to the success of Windows, and I always said that our readers were the ones who got to define what “PC” meant. Not us, and certainly not Microsoft.
TechCrunch’s MG Siegler has blogged about the notion of the post-PC era, saying a lot of things I agree with. He notes the rise of the iPad as a general-purpose device, and says it’s a “clear and present danger” to Microsoft’s dominance. He’s right. He also references my TIME column, and thinks, I believe, that by saying the PC was evolving I was taking an at least somewhat Microsoft-friendly stance. I wasn’t, really: I’d feel that way even if Windows evolved its way into irrelevance.
MG says I pussyfooted my way around the topic, and in at least one respect I’d agree with him: I didn’t take a stance on Windows 8, the upcoming version which will attempt to split the difference with the iPad by providing both a traditional interface and one based on Windows Phone’s “Metro” look. The fact is that Microsoft has only provided fleeting glimpses of Windows 8 so far, and I haven’t had any hands-on experience with it yet. I hope to come home from Microsoft’s BUILD conference in a couple of weeks with a Windows 8 beta; if I do, I may feel either that it’s given Windows a new lease on life or that it’s an ungainly mess that’s likely doomed. But for now, anyone who has strong feelings about Windows 8 one way or the other is extrapolating from incomplete information.
In the column, I also mentioned the notion of a “PC plus” era, as defined by Microsoft’s Frank Shaw. It involves tablets and phones being less useful than (Windows) PCs, and serving as “companions” to them. In another piece, I said what I thought of “PC plus”–which is that it’s a very Microsoftian notion that doesn’t jibe with where we are and where we’re going.
The very fact that it’s unclear whether Windows 8 is going to cut it is a healthy sign about the future of the PC. For years, Windows was such an unavoidable fact of life that it was difficult to contemplate any immediate scenario in which Microsoft didn’t have an outsized influence on the future of computing. (That’s how we ended up with the train wreck that was Windows Vista–a piece of software that would never have existed if Microsoft was running scared rather than fat and happy.)
Today, though, it’s entirely possible that Windows–even if it remains on gazillions of computers around the world–will begin to feel less and less relevant to typical consumers over the next few years. With the iPad, Apple has presented us all with an alternate take on what personal computing should be. I think it’s entirely possible that it’ll supplant Windows, and it could happen more quickly than any of us would have guessed.
But even if the iPad someday outsells Windows-based machines 9-to-1, I won’t talk about the death of the PC. Sorry, I’m just pigheaded that way…