Dispatch from the post-PC revolution

Apple CEO Tim Cook says the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad are 'post PC devices.' Wait, what?

While introducing the new iPad, Apple CEO Tim Cook this week said on stage that we're entering a "post-PC world."

Former Microsoft executive Ray Ozzie agreed, telling Reuters: "Of course we are in a post-PC world."

Most people hearing that might wonder what in the hell they're talking about. Yes, we've all got cell phones and tablets. But our main computers are still PCs, aren't they?

The answer is: Yes, but not for long.

What does "post PC" mean, anyway?

When Cook says iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad are "post PC" devices, what does he mean?

A post-PC device has the following four characteristics:

1. It's an appliance.

The PC architecture at its core is a hobbyist kit. To buy one, you shop for components that will be bolted inside a giant metal-and-plastic box. You choose the operating system, the amount, type and brand of memory and storage, the size, type and brand of monitor, the specific video card and a dozen other choices. Later, you may choose to add or swap out things, add a second dual-booted operating system or partition the hard drive. A PC is designed to be tinkered with, optimized and upgraded.

A post-PC device is a theoretical "black box." It's not for people who like to tinker with tech but for people who want to use it without worrying about how it works, or whether it can be customized or improved by user effort.

2. It's got a multi-touch UI

Pre-PC devices had the first-generation user interface -- the command line.

PC devices have the second-generation user interface -- windows, icons, menus and pointing devices (the WIMP user interface).

Post-PC devices have the third-generation user interface -- multi-touch, physics and gestures (MPG).

(Just as there was an awkward overlap between first- and second-generation with first Windows-on-DOS, then DOS-in-Windows, there is a similar transition with multi-touch elements on Macs and Windows 8 PCs.)

3. It doesn't have file management

PCs force users to engage in file management. User data files have to be backed up, organized and kept track of. System files like drivers and DLLs are often troublesome and have to be replaced or upgraded.

Post-PC devices need updates, of course, but the user doesn't track down the location of files and manage them. When a new app is installed, the user sees the icon, and that's it. There's no drilling down to see all the files installed. There's no file management.

4. Apps function on the app-store model

The post-PC approach to dealing with software is that it's discovered on an app store, downloaded with a single touch and deleted with another touch. Updates all come at once from the app store, and it all happens behind the scenes with minimal user involvement.

The post-PC world is coming to a desktop near you

When Cook and others talk about moving to a "post-PC world," this is what they're talking about. Apple specifically is making its PCs more post-PC. Microsoft is making the next version of Windows very post PC.

But these PCs acquiring post-PC characteristics are simply transitional features designed to prepare us for the truly post-PC world coming soon.

Yes, people will use something like an iPad -- people will and are already using the iPad specifically -- as their main, or only, computing device.

The number of people buying and using iPads and other tablets is growing fast. And the number of people buying new PCs is slowing, and will soon decline.

It won't stop anytime soon, however. You'll be able to buy PCs well into the post-PC future.

The New York Times recently gave a succinct status report on this changing of the guard:

"In 2011, PCs outsold tablets almost six to one, estimates Canalys, a technology research company. But that is still a significant change from 2010, the iPad's first year on the market, when PCs outsold tablets 20 to one, according to Canalys. For the last two years, PC sales were flat, while iPad sales were booming."

Whenever pundits accurately predict something, people will tell you you're wrong, crazy and/or an idiot -- right up until the point where they say: "Well, duh -- of course that's what everyone has known all along." That's why prediction is so ungratifying -- everybody skips the "wow, you were right" part. Sigh.

My prediction two years ago in this space that "iPads would replace desktop PCs for many people was met with almost universal disagreement.

I've made a whole lot of related and equally unpopular predictions, including that "giant desktop tablets would go mainstream, and that you, the mouse-loving nay-sayers, would "learn to love your on-screen, all-glass keyboard.

I'm here to report for the first time that the public attitude on all this has reversed itself. Such predictions were met with "you're wrong and you're an idiot" right up until a couple of months ago. Now, I'm getting a lot more: "Well, duh, obviously."

A huge percentage of tech fans and professionals now accept the inevitability of the "post-PC" future, the mouseless desktop tablet and all the rest.

The clincher is the universal application of post-PC elements to PC platforms. Both the "Lion" and more recent "Mountain Lion" versions of OS X (Apple also removed the word "Mac" from OS X) introduced "a huge number of interface and app elements from iOS.

And, of course, Windows 8 features a "Metro UI" -- clearly a tablet user interface that can also be used with a mouse -- that's optional on PCs but required on tablets.

With so much conspicuous writing on the walls, it's becoming clear that the post-PC, touch-tablet centric world is coming to desktops.

Meanwhile, the power and capabilities of the PC world are trickling down to the post-PC tablet space. Consider:

  • The screen resolution on the new iPad is higher than Microsoft Xbox 360.
  • The mobile broadband connection will exceed the performance of many home Internet connections
  • The use of a keyboard is very widespread on iPads
  • The growth of "content creation" tools has spread, and now even versions of Photoshop and Microsoft Office are becoming available

The number of consumer activities that cannot be done on an iPad is rapidly dwindling.

As an increasing number of consumers embrace iPads and other tablets as their full-time computing device, they're going to want bigger ones for the desktop.

No, the PC isn't going away. But it is moving away from the center. The PC of tomorrow will be like yesterday's "workstation" of the '90s. The PC will become a relatively high-priced powerhouse reserved for hard-core specialists and professionals.

But the vast majority of users will soon use post-PC devices that look and feel and work a lot like the iPad.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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