Post-PC: It's not about the hardware

Summary:Conversations about post-PC center around the hardware changes of recent years. That's not really the profound change, it's the mobilization of the operating system.

Post-PC PC

A lot of pixels have been invested in discussing the post-PC era and whether or not it even exists. The discussion usually revolves around new hardware types, spurred on by the mass acceptance of tablets and other types of mobile computers.

Whether you believe that the post-PC era is real or not, there is no question that the computing industry is in the midst of a profound change. Contrary to common belief, this change has more to do with the operating system and connectivity than the hardware.

My colleague Adrian Kingsley-Hughes published a fine column questioning what the PC will look like in the post-PC era. He points out that how we (computers users) interact with technology is changing, and this will drive how PC hardware evolves in the future.

The shift from PCs to post-PC devices is a lot more than just replacing desktops and notebooks with smartphones and tablets, it's a change in how we interact with, and even bond with our devices. One of the most significant differences is that post-PC devices are more intimate, and we are far less likely to share them with others. A PC may have numerous users, but a tablet or smartphone is likely to have only one.

This observation is a good description of how PC use is changing--has already changed if we're honest. The change has OEMs pushing new hardware forms on the market, but that hardware is not what is defining the post-PC era.

Windows is the very heart of the PC, yet Windows 8 is as post-PC as any platform.

The mobilization of the OS is what's behind the fundamental change we are coming to describe as post-PC. This is the result of mobile platforms being snapped up by hundreds of millions of consumers using smartphones and tablets.

The devices running mobile OSes are secondary to the fundamental computing changes we are currently experiencing. The biggest impact driving the post-PC era is the mobilzation of the OS.

The mobile platforms leading the change, the largest being iOS and Android, have conditioned users to expect constant connectivity. The platforms have leveraged that ubiquitous connectivity and evolved to offer full computing capability far beyond the original phone operation that spawned it.

The always-connected mobile operating environment led to app ecosystems that made the mobile OS far more powerful than early versions, and this narrowed the gap between the conventional desktop OS and the mobile OS.

This evolution of computing capability is what led to the rise of the tablet, which Steve Jobs famously proclaimed as the start of the post-PC era. He was half-right, it was the mobile OS and app ecosystem that led to profound change, not the hardware. Without the OS providing the capabilities that users needed, the hardware was just a paperweight.

This always-on expectation we have grown used to is the core of the post-PC era. It's even becoming a major part of our desktop OSes. That's evident when you look at the latest version of Windows from Microsoft.

Windows is the very heart of the PC, yet Windows 8 is as post-PC as any platform. Behind the mobile-inspired tile Start Screen operated by touching and swiping the screen, lurks an operating system that expects, almost demands to be always connected to be fully functional.

This is apparent as soon as you lose connectivity on a Windows 8 PC. The user's start screen customizations are stored in the cloud behind the Microsoft account log-in. Lose connectivity and Windows 8 won't let you in until you create a "local account." Using the local account when the PC is offline and you lose all the careful customization you've done on your online PC. Even though you set your computer up locally, it will only let you use it the way you want if you're online.

Common to all mobile platforms, and Windows 8 is definitely a mobile platform, is that having constant connectivity makes everything work to maximum effect. Account settings drive the operation of whatever physical device is being used, and cloud storage of user information is readily available. Turn off the network connection and it's less of an experience.

It's not the hardware that defines what post-PC means, it's the OS. As platforms go mobile, and Windows 8 is the latest, the post-PC era becomes more of a mainstay. That's driven by the platforms being always online to provide full functionality. As platforms evolve to rely on constant connectivity, the computing ecosystem depends less on the hardware and more on the mobile OS. That's what is driving the post-PC era.

So to answer Adrian's question of what the post-PC computer will look like, I offer this answer: it will look like many different things. It will be small and large. It will be portable and sitting on a desk. It will be light and too heavy to carry. It will have displays that vary from the tiny to the very large.

What the post-PC computer will have is a mobile OS that is always connected to be fully functional. It will run apps bought at an online app store. It will be a mobile OS that follows the user from one device to another. It will leverage cloud storage for information that is free from hardware.

See also:

Topics: Mobile OS, PCs, Windows 8

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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