Welcome to the “post PC era” no wait it’s not

Last week I was doing what I normally do – watching twitter – and noticed the seeds of an interesting conversation starting off from the #live11 conference around the end of the PC era.  I think that’s just plain wrong and misses some important points and has the potential to derail the space time continuum in some way, so I jumped in.  The debate raged in 140 chars (actually more like 100 minus the #tags and @names etc.) so we decided to take it further.  The main protagonist in this story is Michael Greenland who it turns out is a stunningly good designer.  He also uses both PC and Mac for his day to day role, lets divorce ourselves from that and the person though because it’s not the point, the point it to introduce a good egg.

So why don’t I agree with the post PC era, well you might say it’s because I work for Microsoft.  I do, I love it here.

The premise is that the PC is based on this ancient definition from Wikipedia:

A personal computer is any general-purpose computer whose size, capabilities, and original sales price make it useful for individuals, and which is intended to be operated directly by an end-user with no intervening computer operator. In contrast, the batch processing or time-sharing models allowed large expensive mainframe systems to be used by many people, usually at the same time. Large data processing systems require a full-time staff to operate efficiently.

There are a number of things wrong here, the first of which is that we’re dealing with technology and (gulp) things change, but there are many things here that are right.  Lets deal with what’s wrong.  It’s the 3rd sentence. 

Large data processing systems require a full-time staff to operate efficiently.

We’ve obviously fixed this with cloud – industry high-five!  Sentence two needs to be updated to reflect cloud too but sentence one is spot on.  Mr Jobs is usually attributed with saying we’re in the post-pc era (June 2 2010 according to TechRepublic) however there have been naysayers for years 2004 is the earliest I can find reference to.  Any way we aren’t so lets move on.

Is your favourite slate general purpose?  Yes ok How about your phone?  Either of those devices a good size for you? – yep ok lets keep going.  Do they have capabilities and a price that make it useful to an individual?  Sure thing, that’s why they sell by the millions.  Congratulations your phone is a PC.  This is a trend called consumerisation and it’s seeing a resurgence in the market unlike tech has ever seen.  Some think it’s new, I think it just holds new opportunities.

A lot of people are wedded to the idea that the PC is a grey box ‘o bits on your desk with a keyboard and a mouse.  It’s not.  It’s a human enablement device something that lets you do something in a general purpose way, an affordable price and in the right size (read that as form factor).  That form factor is going to change because technology changes as will the price, as will what people want to do with it.  So the premise for my believing that we are not in the post PC era is that what we are in the post grey box era and people saw an object and believed it to be a definition.

Just as people saw tin cans as defining a can.  But today they aren’t often made from tin, they’re made from cool new stuff like aluminium and are easier to use with ring pulls, prettier with labels printed directly to the can and I’m sure some kind of special extrusion ingenuity that makes them cool to people who love cans.  Most of us take cans for granted, as we do with PCs and that’s a good thing.

We’re on the precipice of the most dramatic change in PCs since they were invented, they’ve already started to get touchy with some amazing innovation and competition in the market has played no small part in that but the other motivator has been people.  Far more important.  People want to do different things today, they want to be able to have the same or better facilities at work as they do at home.  PCs that are as attractive, as usable, as cool.  They want PCs like those in The Collection (actually I don’t think they’re all cool but that’s just my definition of cool) however if Samsung would like me to sport the Series 9 I’d love to, thanks.

So divorce yourself from the idea that PCs are grey boxes.

I’d like you to take this definition from thefreedictionary.com which is again funny but it does provide an alternative.  An alternative reality where we only have single function devices, imagine carrying a phone, an address book, a calendar, a notice board, a wall everything your device de-jour does today seems like an odd thing to do when you have a little PC in your pocket that you commonly call a smart phone.  Single function devices have a place – I love my eReader – but a single function world is a giant step back.  Oh yeah that definition goes on to mention Java and talks about code portability ask anyone – it’s not that simple.

Lets take a moment to celebrate being general purpose…imagine if everything only did one thing it would be hard to release potential, hard to innovate hard to do cool stuff.  Life would suck.  Life would be mundane.  Life would be dictated.  No thanks!

So where is this all going.  We’re going natural user interfaces baby.  They sound cool but we’re only breaking the surface, touch whilst it’s the next thing today is probably not going to be all that cool when you can WILL your things to do something.  And you know what, the PC will be there doing that for you this multifunction, affordable, capable device in the right form factor for the job will be with you.  Personal Computers – THE most personal computers even – won’t need keyboards or mice or touch or gesture control or whatever we invent next.

This isn’t just about the device though because the original premise was that cloud enables post PC and it doesn’t.  Some of the heavy lifting can be done by the cloud but some can’t, there are times when you’ll want to be selfish.  Times when you need to guarantee gargantuan gaming performance times when you want to max out your own processors to crunch some numbers and that’s going to stay with us for a while too.  Until we reach a world of ubiquity of quality and speed of interconnection between devices – note though that today’s quality and speed is not tomorrows.  We might be chasing our tail here.

Wow tech is cool – we’re going to do amazing things that we don’t know yet.  The limiting form factor is you and I.

So how do you start the trend off, embrace it, use it to make or save money for you.  Allow consumerisation into your organisation, know what you’re doing and control risk but don’t gate keep access that will just annoy people and 100 people tend to be smarter than 1.  Guide don’t gate keep.  Your people will be able to do more….with a PC.

4 Comments

  1. Simon – excellent response to my blog. Maybe, being cynical, the fact that PC is universal term fits Steve Job’s aims in more than one way – Post-PC, a sideswipe at a close relative.

    Before anyone says I’m an Apple Fanboy – I’ve moved from an iPhone to an Android device – as the user experience is more mature on Android – and I mentioned before – I use both PC and Mac.

    For the masses, who don’t use Smartphones or Computers, I guess the premise of Post-PC will be quite meaningless. For those that so though – I think we have to be realistic.

    Taking the discussion up a notch – and the question of semantics – I think the truth is that PC (as a description) defines an era. It is an era firmly anchored in films such Superman III, Jumping Jack Flash and Weird Science. Beige ‘terminals’, with green screens and keyboards akin to a plastic box of ‘Terry’s All Gold’. PC, as a term belongs to the likes of Sir Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar. ‘Amstrad CPC 464′. ‘IBM PC’. Sadly, PC is more associated with wooly jumper, floppy discs and C:/ardigans. And – I think – the term PC will always be associated there too. Just look at the Wikipedia description. It’s not only a tad inaccurate, but is says little about the human enablement factor, and more about the boxes. Lots of boxes. And lots of wires.

    It does come down to semantics really though I suppose. I’d love to agree with your sentiment of we’re not Post-PC – but I don’t. Personal Computing was special when it was new. In the 80’s, ‘personal’ was hip. Personal Stereo. Personal Computer. Personal Banking. Personal (hey everyone, you’re an individual, and so is our product). But now we’ve all got ‘Personal Computers’ in our pockets…, they’re not special in the same way anymore. So PC, as a term – it may be used (due to the amount of “PC’s” out there) – but it belongs more to the era of Neon socks and Space invaders – and Monster Munch. And there in lies the problem. (In fact – in the era of the PC – when schools shared one BBC Micro with 200 pupils – it was anything but personal).

    As soon as we say ‘Post-PC’ therefore, we’re kinda saying ‘Post-Knight Rider’, or ‘Post-Legwarmers’. Or even ‘Post-Van Halen’. Some of these come back in different guises, but the original – anchors it firmly in the past. 

    Computers are Charles Babbage and Punchcards, and huge tape reels. Our computing now – has moved on. When we can recall our favourite music during our lives from our device, and trust these devices with our family album – they’ve moved beyond mere ‘Computing’ – and into our daily stream of thought. ‘Computing’ was something you did. But we’ve moved that out of the way. Now – we just ‘do’.

    So – Post-PC. I guess for me, means we’ve gone past that dogma. Touch is the new, the hip, the cool. And a touch device is still a PC of sorts- well, ish. Only it isn’t. The difference between a touch device and a screen + keyboard +/- box combo is the difference between a proper Barista in a Coffee Bar and a warm cup of brown in a Transport Caff. Sure, the latter is still coffee. But the former is refined, considered, and made to enjoy – and delivered to delight and entrance. The problem with the PC of old is that it was always slightly overwhelming. Like it knew more than you, and you were the fleshy input device – rather than the other way around. The PC – as a device – was extremely arrogant. 

    So the promise of touch devices – notice I’m not saying touch computing – is that suddenly, the device is here to help. It changes on the fly to help us work with it. Human.

    For me therefore – I’m saying that we truly are Post-PC. By humanising the technology, the technology is fading away. ‘Hi-tech’ is ‘low-tech’. User experience wins. Quiet, considered, seamless user experience. True human enablement doesn’t come with a programming language – it comes with simplicity. When your grandmother can write an email and add an attachment; and when your four-year old is mixing songs – then the tech has moved out of the way.

    I’d love to see Microsoft move Laptops and Desktops away from the monicker of ‘PC’, and into something else. Something less ‘PC’, and more about the enablement. More about life. the promise of PC’s – was never Personal Computing. It was always enablement. But it never took the time to explain – until now.

    In the 1980’s, ‘Personal’ was the leading edge. In the 2010’s, ‘Social’ is the norm. In the world of devices, it’s not about ‘my PC’ anymore. It’s about our shared experience, or sharing. In that respect – the devices we carry are not PC’s, but are something entirely different. Tablets do not belong to the PC world. They belong to a new generation of devices. They may ‘compute’, but they are no longer ‘computers’.

    Post-PC – it’s here, it’s now. The question is – what’s next?

  2. So what you are basically saying, Michael,  is that Simon is correct in his definition?

    To me, “post-PC” is something we are seeing the beginning of but it’s not due to the latest slate/tablet or whatever smartphone is around. Those devices are, as Simon states, still PCs.

    Post-PC is not about the device, it is about the user. 

    I, as a person, will become “post-pc” because I won’t need to worry about one particular device. The Internet started this off and the “cloud” is taking it to the next level (along with the connected services and devices). 

    The Microsoft 2019 vision video (http://bit.ly/iVXJ49) is a good example of what I see “Post-PC” as, with children communicating through glass etc. not becuase there is no beige box on the table, or Skyping each other through a smartphone but because of the way they are communicating with each other.

    Post-PC is when people come before the device

  3. I decided to expand on my thought’s on my own blog » What is the Post-PC era and are we there yet? http://bit.ly/lydyvc

  4. Thom, I am agreeing with the definition, but not the sentiment. We ARE in the Post-PC era.

    Post-PC is device agnostic, yes. Well, less about the arrogant machine, anyway. ‘How do I learn how to use this, how long will it take me to learn to operate’ is replaced with ‘What can this device enable me to do right now, this second?’

    The video is interesting, but for designers – offers nothing ‘new’. Minority Report was 2002, and this takes us no further, other than placing the tech in less dramatic situations. Designers learn this stuff at Uni, and ask far more far reaching questions. (Like – how do we replace the screen – even when it’s translucent – it’s kind of anti-social).

    It’s less about device, and all about experience and enablement. How can we enable people to do more, with less? 

    Post-PC is actually about Post-‘sit up at the keyboard and type’, and more about – let’s go! It’s the difference between the stone tablet and the invention of paper, and the freedom to use, rather than learn. 20 years from now, I think we’ll be saying that the iOS was the watershed moment. The moment when computing became accessible. When the interface became user-centric.

    The focus now – is how do we make this technology democratic – and truly enable people.

What do you think?