The “post-PC era” myth

A term that’s been flying around a lot since the iPad 2 launch has been “post-PC era,” referring to how tablets and smartphones are replacing desktop and laptop computers. That theme was revisited yesterday as Apple announced iOS 5 products that, out of the box, could be used completely independently from a computer. I’m a fan of computers, as I’m sure you guys are, and am dubious that in a few years everyone will be working, playing, and living exclusively on tablets.

There are a few obvious reasons to doubt the transition, namely that there’s a well-entrenched installed base of laptop and netbook users that have no real need for another computer. What about price point? You can get a decent netbook for $250 while tablet computers are $400 minimum. Functionality is also limited by the form factor, like missing physical keyboards and input ports (full-sized USB and SD, for example), and battery life that doesn’t last more than a day. Although the horsepower is improving, top-end PCs still vastly outperform the best tablets currently available.

All of those things stand to be weathered down in time, though, as first-time computer-buyers will be able to consider tablet alternatives from here on in, prices will go down as competition stiffens and bulk parts purchasing becomes viable for OEMs and new technologies will fill function and processing disparities. Even that new Toshiba tablet is including a full SD card slot. My real concerns are inherent with the form factor and what’s sacrificed when you ditch the full keyboard and the mouse.

Precision is the first thing to come to mind. Massive adjustments in touchscreen user interface are made to accommodate chubby fingers (like bigger buttons that eat up precious screen space). Even with styluses used on the old resistive touchscreens and the new capacitive breed we’re starting to see with the likes of the HTC Flyer, fiddling with loose parts while on the move is a hassle and not practical for many people. The BlackBerry PlayBook partially sidesteps the issue by being compatible with a Bluetooth mouse, but not all of the functions have been translated yet and there are still some gaps in hardware support.

Precision in text is also hugely important both for gadget-owners that want to be productive as well as those that just want to socialize. Many people have adapted to virtual keyboards relatively well but is it still no match for the speed and confidence of physical keys. Of course, there are dock adapters and other accessories that can give your tablet access to a real keyboard, but then you’re making the same compromises in portability that you would with a more full-featured netbook. Even without a physical keyboard, a touchscreen version further compromises limited screen space.

Screen real estate is an issue that isn’t going to go away when it comes to tablets. We’re already pushing our luck with 10-inch tablets, since beyond that, you might as well just get a slim netbook. For individual tasks, tablet screens are ample but how efficiently can you really do two things at once? It’s certainly not impossible with multitasking as a common OS feature, but having to actively switch between apps rather than simply seeing more than one on a screen at once isn’t viable for day-long work. Sure, you can always explode your tablet’s display out to a monitor or even a TV through HDMI or DLNA, but as discussed earlier, the user interface and functions are still built to be usable on the small screen and it still won’t let you effectively do more than one thing at a time.

Connectivity is another big issue with these portable devices. Wireless networks are inherently unreliable and though you can still do a lot with intermittent coverage and offline caching, an ethernet hard line is the only sure bet. Of course, the middle ground here is Wi-Fi, which is reliable enough for all-day computing on either a desktop or tablet. The tablet has certainly found a comfortable home on coffee tables and bedrooms thanks to Wi-Fi connectivity but the whole idea of the “post-PC” world is that you can take a tablet anywhere and do just as much as on a PC. Until cellular networks can match Wi-Fi’s reliability, I don’t think that’s a claim tablets can comfortably make.

Windows 8 seems like it will do a great job of blurring the lines between tablet and PC and it strikes me as the best compromise presented to us so far. For times when you have a keyboard, mouse, display, and power supply ready to be docked with a tablet running a big-boy operating system, I could see the tablet being good enough for everyday work.

With the secondary touch-optimized UI, it could be a passable portable device (given there’s some smart battery management that doesn’t have full Windows running in the background while you’re out). In that scenario, I see the tablet simply as a smaller, portable PC, just as it was originally envisaged prior to the iPad busting onto the scene. Of course, Apple is dragging a lot of its iOS-inspired stuff into OS X Lion, which is just a way of pushing the idea that software and functions can effectively trickle up from the small form factors. This idea is just as flawed as thinking real computing can be simply miniaturized for tablets and smartphones like Windows Mobile tried to do.

Anyway, this is my take on the whole idea of the “post-PC” world but I have a feeling many technophiles could imagine laptop computers melting away in the next five to ten years.  What do you guys think?

  • Totally agree.  I find it kind of funny when people talk about things like tablets replacing desktop machines.

    Another thing I don’t see mentioned much is ergonomics.  The laptop is already not very ergonomic – the screen is too low (or the keyboard too high).  They say your screen should be in front of your eyes while your arms are at a 90-degree angle.  Now take a look at a tablet without a keyboard.  In order to use one of those you have to crane your neck even further to see the screen.  Or prop up the tablet, making it difficult to type.  Try doing that for hours on end.  Actually, don’t – you’ll probably hurt yourself.

  • Bruce

    “I’m a fan of computers, as I’m sure you guys are, and am dubious that in a few years everyone will be working, playing, and living exclusively on tablets.”

    Apple is not saying this. You are the only one saying this.

    First of all, people still use mechanical calculators. People still use black and white film. Using the word “exclusively” is hyperbole.

    Second, there are a lot of people in this world who have never used a computer. In the past, let’s say 10 years ago, it was thought that eventually, everyone would use a computer. Now the need for computers is much less than it was 10 years ago. The cell phone has seen to that. As all cell phones become smart phones, computers become even less necessary for those who have never owned one.

    What the majority of the people in the world need more than a PC is a cell phone and an online account of some kind. You know, The Cloud. So it’s not just tablets that are replacing the PC, it’s smart phones and the cloud.

    Third, you should really read asymco. That site deals in numbers, which represent the reality of what is going on with phones, tablets, and computers. In sales, the numbers are clear: cell phones rule, smart phones are catching up to all cell phones, tablets are growing tremendously, and PCs are stagnant. That’s reality. Oh, and desktop computers are becoming less and less significant every day. I still use one though.

    • Apple isn’t saying it explicitly because they still have a PC business to run, however marginal it may be right now. But the very term “post-PC” says to me that eventual replacement is the direction they’re heading in, which is backed up by the iOS-style stuff we’re seeing in Lion.

      I do read Asymco, they get some really good stats. From what I’ve seen, growth is plateauing rather than people actually ditching their computers. As far as I can tell, it’s about about the market reaching a saturation point rather than a sign of decline. I’m a bit confused though – you say I’m being hyperbolic, but the trends you’re seeing are pointing in that very direction? You’re right though, there’s a lot more to it than just tablets – the cloud definitely is a huge part of what’s happening, but probably worth another post altogether.

  • Anonymous

    What you’re forgetting is that it is the new ARM platform verses the old x86 platform.

    WIth ARM, there is nothing stopping it upscaling to larger screen sizes, which produce more accuracy. There is nothing stopping it gaining processing power… it is being used in servers because it has more computing power per watt than x86 does.

    • Absolutely, and I did concede that horsepower is quickly catching up to the desktop. But rather than enabling tablets as we know them to supersede PCs, I see that common architecture leading to slimmer, more viable laptops and potentially Windows 8-style tablets that run full operating systems (not just the jury-rigged smartphone OSes that have been released).

  • anilshah

    Whoever coined the word Post-PC was not meaning “post-Personal Computing” but “post-Personal Computing as we know it”.More specifically “post-Personal Computing using the desktop-laptop form factors”
    Personal Computing is far from dead. If anything, it is becoming more “Personal”. Different form-factors have arrived putting the power of “Computing” in the “Personal” reach of billions.

    To put things into perspective let us split Personal Computing into into two categories

    Personal Com-puting
    Traditional Personal Computing using the desktop and laptops using keyboard / mouse / stylus as the primary methods of input used for Business, Scientific, Authoring, Editing applications and requiring high level of computing skills

    Personal Sim-puting
    Simple Personal Computing using smartphones, tablets, devices, gadgets using touch / gestures / movement as the primary methods of input used for Apps, Cloud computing, Communication, Browsing, Gaming and requiring low level of computing skills

    We are actually entering a UBIQUITOUS-PC Era.

    • Agreed, it’s a poor term to describe the changes that have been happening in computing habits.

  • Tablets will not replace Personal Computers (PCs) and laptops. PCs are cheaper and best suited for mass production. I don’t think any writer, blogger or software developer would chose a tablet computer over a PC or laptop to produce his/her work. A PC is what I have used and everyone else to make their website.

  • Anonymous

    The PC will never go away, that’s for certain. The “Post-PC” term does irk me a little, but I think it’s more about our usage habits and patterns. Six years ago, I couldn’t imagine using e-mail, Facebook, a web browser and more on my phone on a regular basis. These days, I’d say I do more on my phone than my actual PC or notebook, except maybe web browsing. I almost never use e-mail on any desktop browsers or clients, and I rarely log into Facebook or Twitter away from my iPhone or whichever Android device is sitting on my desk.

    Even then, my web browsing usage is declining on my PC as the iPad gives nearly just as good an experience. I think the “Post-PC” era is one which sees usage between multiple mediums – PCs, tablets and smartphones – as being fairly balanced. We no longer have to run to a computer to check e-mail, surf the web or do just about anything else.

    The PC will never be replaced – who can do any serious video and photo editing on a tablet? – but features that were once exclusive to it can now be done just as well on tablets and smartphones.

  • Moe

    The “Post-PC” myth is just as real as the “paperless office” myth that came around 20 years ago,  even after the mobile architecture used in mobile devices and tablets matches their desktop counterparts (getting close) the main drawback will be the limited size of the screen, even if you add, usb devices and wireless mouse & keyboard, the experience and usability its handicapped by the its screen size.
    A 7″, 10″ or an 11″ in screen you hand  just doesn’t compare to a full desktop screen, this is one of the reason why netbooks are not that successful on the market,  every time I use one I really miss having a bigger screen.

    Some people would say: “you can always plug it to a bigger screen”  mmm… I would like to see that done in a commuter train or a subway!  

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  • There will always be room for PCs for specialized uses such as offices where a lot of document and spreadsheet crunching occurs.  

    However, for the basic consumer, tablets are starting to take the place of PCs. Some people I know rarely touch their laptops and PCs at home now and instead opt to reach out for their tablets for internet browsing or checking their emails.

    Lets also not forget that in more than half of the world, they never got to the PC era and have gone straight to mobile

  • Robert Gagnon

    The writer sounds like an MS softie!

    • No more than the other editors are Apple softies. 😉

  • Robert Gagnon

    The writer sounds like an MS softie!

  • Anonymous

    Good article. I particularly agree with your points about connectivity. Until a tablet (ipad or Android) can replace my laptop, I have no need for it. My 6 year old Toshiba laptop, pimped out with an external hard drive and running Google Chrome, has an ethernet port for those times wireless is unavailable. Have you seen the new Macbook air? It has no ethernet.Why would you pay premium for limited connectivity options, because Steve Jobs said “make it so”. I’ve had an iphone for a couple of years, cant deny the superior user interface, and the ipad was a logical iteration for it, maybe I’m just an old fart, but I prefer the traditional desktop interface for computing, get your app tiles of my desktop! You hear that Microsoft, with your windows 8? I’m still running XP, though I’ve heard through the grape vine support for XP will be coming to an end in the near future.

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  • And to enjoy and welcome this new era, I just purchased a new Dell pc with two screens. It will supplement my laptop computer and iPad. 

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