What exactly is a 'post-PC device' anyway?

Summary:In a few weeks people will be able to buy Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets. Perhaps it's time to step back and look again at just what "post-PC" means...

It used to be that you could go several weeks on Twitter without someone saying that because Windows 8 will run on tablets suddenly the downward trend in PC sales would be reversed. With the proper launch of Windows 8 happening in just a few weeks, it's difficult to go ten minutes without getting mired in the same discussion.

Technologists, and I include myself in this, sometimes struggle to think outside of what they themselves use and need in a separate way to what a "normal" human being needs. As a result, most technologists tend to think of tablets as a "PC Plus" - i.e. a tablet that because it runs Windows you can do more with.

post-pc-ipad

That position is basically wrong. An iPad sells because you can do less with it, not more. Remember the adage "less is more" - if I were in charge of Apple's marketing (and thank goodness I'm not, because I'm rubbish at marketing) that would be what I went with.

Windows 8 will come in two flavours. Windows 8 is the "full" Windows operating system. (It's dangerous to use the words "full" or "proper" when describing Windows 8, but there's few other ways of doing it.) This is the variant of the OS that's least likely to challenge the iPad market because it's a PC operating system and not a post-PC operating system. Windows RT is much more iPad-like, and is the one that - given the correct alignment of planets, the proper number of magic spells incanted, and decent availability of unicorn tears - could actually go toe-to-toe with the iPad. Nothing about Windows 8 will reverse the natural, organic trend in the reduction of PC sales. Windows RT isn't a PC, and therefore has a shot.

No intimidation

My ZDNet colleague James Kendrick nails the post-PC proposition in his piece "The lure of the tablet: no intimidation". In it he talks about how tablets are designed from the ground-up with a reductive simplicity that stops people from being freaked out by them. As they're engineered from the start to be locked down and secure, they also don't need anti-virus software and they don't expose themselves to malware vectors as easily as PCs. Nothing bad is going to happen to you using an iPad, unless you specifically choose it to.

The full Windows 8 is no different to Windows 7 in terms of intimidation. You can blast through the tablet-optimised Start menu and designed-for-safety "Windows Store" apps and into the normal desktop and do everything you did before. You can also click on links in your browser and get owned by drive-by downloads. Well, maybe you won't, but your family members might and they have your phone number, so that's your weekend blown fixing that then.

Windows RT is different in that it it's locked down. The legacy apps that you can run are very limited - it's essentially just the upcoming version of Office that you can run on it. Everything else is a Windows Store app. These follow the iPad's app deployment model. The software vendor themselves are registered and vetted, code is checked for safety once by the vendor and again by Microsoft, the app is vetted by Microsoft, and released. Code runs in a secure sandbox and, on top of all that, the API used to build Windows Store apps is restricted and limited to keep trust way, way up on the agenda.

No keyboard!

This is the recurring conversation I have with people that depresses me most.

Back to this idea of the iPad being a "less is more" model of computing, the lack of a proper keyboard on the iPad is entirely intentional.

Post-PC devices are about your relationships and what's important to you in your personal life. They're not about work. Keyboards, however, are about work. The argument you hear is that keyboards are required to do "proper work". Yet the iPad has sold 34 million units since introduction , netting $19 billion in revenue despite the fact - and it might just be me - I have never, ever seen anyone using an iPad with a keyboard in the wild but have seen many, many people using iPads.

It's not possible to unbind both sides of this argument - hence why it keeps happening. I get that people use keyboards - oh look, I'm using a keyboard actually right now at this moment - but the iPad's ridiculous popularity tells us something different. Specifically it tells us this: by building a device without a keyboard, you can essentially destroy the PC market.

Yet bar a tiny number of exceptions, every Windows 8 or Windows RT tablet announced so far is being marketed with the message "You must have a keyboard!"

A less controversial way to look at the keyboard problem is this: they make the unit heavier. That's the polar opposite of what you want from a tablet. They'll also use power and drain the battery fast - also something you don't want. The new iPad weighs 662 grams. Try building a usable keyboard that doesn't double that weight. You can't. You can also try and build one that costs $0. Again, good luck. Expect a bump in price comparing iPad to Windows RT tablets because of consumers being told that they need to have a keyboard with it.

(That said, an iPad without a case is impracticable, yet Apple manages cleverly to stop people thinking how they're going to have to drop $50 on a decent case for the thing.)

People don't use tablets at their desk, they use them in every situation bar the one where there are at their desk. Lying back in bed holding an iPad in midair with one hand and jabbing with another finger is tricky enough with a device that weight 662 grams - try doing that with one that weighs 1.5kg and won't fold flat.

In short - keyboards make me cross. With a keyboard, a tablet can only be used at a desk. Take the keyboard off and you have the elegant, superior portability exemplified by the iPad. Silly thing is, Windows 8 is designed to be completely functional without a keyboard - it's just the packaging by Microsoft and the OEMs that's skewing the discussion.

Always connected

This one doesn't get much airplay, but to me a tablet should have an on-board cellular modem. Perhaps this is the company I keep - my mobile phone provider doesn't support tethering so if I can't find a Wi-Fi connection for my tablet I need to find some other way to get those delicious packets of IP down to my device. An onboard cellular modem streamlines things beautifully. I feel a bit wobbly that Surface doesn't have an onboard cellular modem , this being the first Windows RT device I plan to buy. (And no, I have no plans to buy a Windows 8 tablet, just a Windows RT one.)

But at least here there's some consistency - all of the providers talk about these devices having a need to be continuously connected.

Conclusion

For me then, "post-PC" means a lightweight device that's used for one's relationships and personal life, not for work. It doesn't have a keyboard precisely because of that. They're cheap - think $400 not $800. They have "zero intimidation", full-trust baked in and consistency across the entire OS and experience. And they're always connected.

Devices that tick those boxes will sell and Windows RT fits that perfectly - it now remains to be seen over the next few months whether the marketing message, pricing, and quality app availability manages to attract consumers away from the iPad.

Just don't expect Windows 8 tablet PCs to start eating into iPad sales. That, my friends, is not going to happen.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Photo credit: Liam Westley

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Topics: Tablets

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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