The “Post-PC” Era: It’s Real, But It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

Computing is changing. The news last week showed that loud and clear, as Microsoft bet big on Skype’s voice and video technology and Google announced partnerships with Samsung and Acer to build laptops running its Chrome operating system. These developments point to a future where computing form factors, interfaces, and operating systems diversify beyond even what we have today. The “Post-PC Era” is underway, but its definition is not self-evident.

First, some history. “Post-PC” has been a buzzword in the past few months, since Steve Jobs announced at the iPad 2 launch event that Apple now gets a majority of its revenue from “post-PC devices,” including the iPod, iPhone, and iPad—a major milestone for a company that was originally named “Apple Computer.” The phrase was also part of the public discourse in 2004, when IBM sold its PC unit and former Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz told The New York Timesthat “We've been in the post-PC era for four years now,” noting that wireless mobile handset sales had already far surpassed PC sales around the world. In fact, the “post-PC” concept is more than a decade old: In 1999, MIT research scientist David Clark gave a talk called “The Post PC Internet,” describing a future point at which objects like wristwatches and eyeglasses would be Internet-connected computing devices.

So what does “post-PC” mean, anyway? It doesn’t mean that the PC is dead: Forrester Research forecasts that even in the US, a mature market, consumer laptop sales will grow at a CAGR of 8% between 2010 and 2015, and desktop sales will decline only slightly. Even in 2015, when 82 million US consumers will own a tablet, more US consumers will own laptops (140 million). But, as Forrester explains in a new report out today, it does mean that computing is shifting from:

  • Stationary to ubiquitous. Contrast the experience of computing on a desktop PC, in one place with a clear start and finish time, to that of the anytime/anywhere computing done on a smartphone or tablet. Ubiquitous computing is also more context-aware computing, aided by sensors like accelerometers, gyroscopes, and geolocators in smartphones and tablets.
  • Formal to casual. In contrast to PC interactions with a formal start and finish time marked by booting up and shutting down, instant-on/always-on computing on smartphones and tablets fills in-between moments like standing in line or watching TV. 
  • Arms-length to intimate. With desktops, computing is literally an arms-length activity. With portable form factors like laptops, netbooks, and tablets, computers become something consumers keep close to their body, and they use them in intimate places: The No. 1 place all three devices are used in the home is the living room, followed by an adult’s bedroom. 
  • Abstracted to physical. The mouse/keyboard paradigm relies on an abstracted interaction with content. Touchscreens like those on smartphones and tablets enable direct physical manipulation of content in two-dimensional space. Cameras with facial recognition, voice sensors, and motion sensors like those on the Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 permit an even wider range of physical interaction with devices, where a user’s body and voice become the controller.

There are a host of technological innovations that make the post-PC era possible. Form-factor diversity enables computing in more contexts. Flash memory eliminates computing downtime. Wi-Fi and mobile broadband networks permit continuous connectivity. And cloud services support computing across multiple devices.

These technological innovations fuel social change, and vice versa. As people conduct more of their lives online—shopping, banking, entertainment—we require more computing in more places. The rise of social networking requires real-time connectivity to manage our relationships. And eroding work-life boundaries means that consumers demand devices that can do double-duty in their work and personal lives.

So where is this all going? In the post-PC era, the “PC” is alive and well, but it morphs to support computing experiences that are increasingly ubiquitous, casual, intimate, and physical. The new MacBook Air and Samsung Series 9 demonstrate PCs going in this direction. In the post-PC era, PCs are joined by smartphones and tablets, as well as future devices like wearables and surfaces. Imagine computing via a heads-up display embedded in your eyeglasses or contact lenses or learning about breaking news updates from a change in your electronics-embedded clothing. The products that will win have yet to be determined, but the underlying technological and social changes that will drive the post-PC forward are already here.


Then make stuff that doesn't need a PC!

If Apple believes we are in a post-PC era, then they need to start making their products work without the iTunes tunnel/leash to the PC. This is my major complaint about my iPad. It is a perfectly powerful computer with full Internet access but it tends to be tied to my PC for updates and DRM. This is a sad state of affairs for such a capable device. They treat it like a big iPod when it is really something much more capable.

People have no patience.

People have no patience. We've only just gotten the 2nd iteration of the iPad. Perhaps, we are only a month or two away from your wish, when Apple turns on their new datacenter in NC.

Having said that, are you so sure you want to do a 600MB update via wifi? You'd have to have well over 1GB free.

Also, after Amazon's cloud failure, are you sure you want to have your iPad's sole backup in the cloud?

Since I need to charge my iPad in a dock next to my PC, what's the big deal having it do updates and backups at the same time? Seems like the ideal way to do that sort of thing. You can still download apps, music and podcasts and books over wifi or 3G. It's only the critical updates and backups that need a PC.

I'd add a fifth bullet to

I'd add a fifth bullet to your very good perspective. Call it complexity … in two related senses of the word.

The "PC as a truck" era was a small playing field … productivity gains at work, with some communicating and sharing glued on in the latter phases. The post-PC era we're in now needs to handle consumer requirements for both work and play, and multiple choices for communicating and sharing … and to do so in the now familiar environment of anytime, anyplace, any device, and network.

This turns a matrix which might have been in 2 or 3 dimensions during the PC era to one with 4-6-8-10 facets, depending on who you're talking to. But in any event, complexity has increased.

In the PC era, decisions which drove the volume were made primarily by companies. So device & software providers could offload the integration tasks to corporations … in fact companies wanted to control integration, to enable them to manage security, collaboration and confidentiality.

Today, consumers are driving purchase decisions for these post-PC devices … not companies. And consumers don't want the responsibility for integration, and in fact will spend real money to avoid it.

Apple gets this better thn anyone else on the planet. Until others get this as well … this will be largely a one horse race.

Apple won music and "media management" with the iPod family, and ended up with well over 50% of the profitability of the business

Apple is winning the mobile phone business with less that 10% of the volume, they already soak up 55% of the profitability

Apple will win the pad/tablet business for the same reason, and probably begin with well over half the industry's profitability

Next will come, for everyone, the assault on the living room. It's the biggest medium of the lot, by some measures bigger than all the ones already exploited combined.

Will anyone challenge this. Amazon has a chance, everyone else is destined to make trucks … at best … or buggy whips at worst


The PC could have been the

The PC could have been the digital hub but for one problem. It was so hard to configure and prone to infection for the normal person. You had to be PC Saavy to do anything. Thats why we're in a post PC era. And thats why Android tablets aren't selling with the emphasis on usb slots, mem cards, ram, proc speed. Sound familiar? Yep, it's PC jargon and average folks HATE it. The admonition from experts that Apple iPad was not a PC did Apple more good than anything. IPads are media devices, Android Tablets are PCs. IPads sell, PC Tablets never have sold and never will. People see them as a smaller version of PC hell.

Who's even more scared are the two-bit PC "experts" who aren't needed for the iPad. People open the box and just do stuff, no nerd needed.

I don't agree with this idea

I don't agree with this idea it's not a digital hub because terminology. I mean, come on, people don't understand almost ANYTHING under the hood of their car but they don't respond to that by not purchasing the vehicle.

I don't think this "stand alone" PC will ever go away. You'll never match it's computing power and speed. Even Star Trek, itself, acknowledged the need for a central computer system. While it is a fantasy show, it's all theoretically possible and decently accurate. A small little tablet will never have the full operating power of a stationary PC.

As well, the only reason Apple is raking in cash from it's iPhone's and iPad's is exceptionally simple.

They are cheaper.

Pay 2000 for a Mac or 900 for a tablet, what would you take when all you need is surfing? Again, doesn't have to do with jargon as that didn't stop 30 years of PC's from being used (and doesn't stop anyone, really, from doing anything).

I think stand alone PC's will die off but they'll never disappear, ever. You'll just never match it's computing power.

With Amazon reportedly poised

With Amazon reportedly poised to launch a tablet computer, technology research firm Forrester is predicting the device could be the first legitimate challenger to Apple's iPad.Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps, in a blog post accompanying a report released Monday, said Amazon taking on Apple is a "bit like David taking on Goliath. Libros Gratis .."But Rotman Epps said Amazon's "willingness to sell hardware at a loss combined with the strength of its brand, content, cloud infrastructure, and commerce assets makes it the only credible iPad competitor in the market."

Amazon vs buggy whips

Hi & thanks for the response. Amazon is indeed coming … with a tablet. the question now is … of what kind and for what purposes. there are all kind of rumors about what Amazon might do.

I personally don't think Bezos is crazy enough to subsidize the tablet as some believe, because Amazon doesn't make enough on their digital content (particularly compared to their "real product" sales) to recover that investment inside a century.

So my guess is they focus on an upgraded reader, with low end color, continued ability to do email & browsing and perhaps a dedicated "low end" app store. I doubt they'll throw good money trying to chase Apple at price points above $250.


So call this a prediction

The subsidized cost of a tablet or any other like-form-factor device needs to be realistic, and needs to be low enough that it is adopted by a majority of the public. The cost of desktop-based internet needs to be rivaled by a wireless internet provider that can offer competitive speeds. Once this is done, call it a cellphone subsidy market, where the company takes over in the post-PC era, and utility computing is among us.