Here's why PCs and post-PC devices are different things (and why they need to stay that way)

Here's why PCs and post-PC devices are different things (and why they need to stay that way)

Summary: It's an argument that goes round and round. "Tablets and PCs are the same!" They're really not...

TOPICS: Tablets, Smartphones, PCs
PC does not equal post-PC

I've recently been trying to use Google+ -- I thought if I used it every day for 30 days, I might actually be able to make sense of it.

Spoiler: it is actually making sense. I quite like it. I plan to write it up for these pages in a few weeks. Stay tuned!

There are a few classic conversations that you can have on social media about post-PC, and as I've recently got into Google+ I keep having them again and again. 

This week I've been hearing a lot of this: "PCs and post-PC devices aren't really so different".

Oh yes they are. They are *very* different. And here's why...


Creeping into the shared collective unconscious is the idea that the PC is misnamed. Specifically, people are increasingly putting forward the following set of precepts:

1) "We know that 'PC' stands for 'Personal Computer'."

2) "We know that smartphones and tablets are more personal."

3) "Therefore, smartphones and tablets are personal computers, and therefore they are just another form of PC."

Now, I agree that the "Personal Computer" is misnamed. However, it should back in 1981 have been called the "Personnel Computer" -- as in "personnel", as in "human resources". The original PC had more to do with a world of the paperless office and "One Per Desk", initiatives from a time when companies worked out that putting a microcomputer on an employee's desk was a good thing.

But wait, that's an employee's desk, not your coffee table, a corner of the bedroom, or your lounge.

PCs are all about work. They are devices that are designed to drive commercial efficiency. The whole market grew up around ideas that if companies invested in computer systems, they would through some process do something that they needed to do better. Want to have better cash flow? Get a computer to do the accounts. And so on.

Over the thirty-or-so year they have been around, this is where the real money has been. PC sales have been driven by business plans by people behaving rationally trying to make more money, more revenue, stop being sued quite so readily, etc.

Just because people can spend their evenings using their PCs chatting on Facebook or building the optimal Farmville farm is not entirely relevant to the PC market.

Think about staying different

What we need to do is make sure that what we describe as the PC remains a device that is about work. They are really good at this. If you want to build some complex output, a PC with its superior processing power, WIMP user interface, fluid multitasking, huge local storage, etc is the best way to do it.

A PC is a device that sits in your house somewhere, you go up to, and you focus. Often for hours at a time.

It's still "personal", because it's about you. But it's only about the part of you that is at work. (And by work, we can include studying and hobbies.)

What we, as in all normal human beings, want to use post-PC devices for is about our entire lives, which includes work, but also includes the other stuff that we do outside of the temporal and physical boundaries of work. That means our relationships with others, ourselves, and the things we want. We had been using PC technology co-opted from the world of commercial efficiency to do this.

Now we have a choice. Post-PC devices are the first devices that we have built for ourselves in order to do everything, not just the work stuff..

This is where things can get a little complicated...

My position is that PCs and post-PC devices are very different beasts. What we've done is optimised two classes of device. One that is about using technology to make producing complex work through application of focused cognitive effort. The other is about using technology to make all the stuff we like to do with our whole lives a little bit more fun, or engaging, or to offer entirely new ways of doing and being.

And so now consumers have a choice between whether they want to do this "digital life" bit on PCs, or smartphones and tablets, or a combination of both. This is what's hurting PC sales in Consumerland. We now have choice..

But there is a schism here. But it's one that's deliberately, necessary, and also one that has a clear evolutionary path.


Combining those two paths back together is what a lot of technologists are keen to do, and some of those technologists really love Windows and the PC and really want that path to come back together again.

That would be a mistake. The schism is helpful. It allows us to have machines that are great for focused work, together with a clear path of opportunity going forward to make them better. And it allows us to have great devices that can make our lives more fun and engaging, and it also has it's clear path of opportunity going forward.

(The Windows 8 Project, with Windows RT, Windows 8, Metro-style/whatever-style, and Surface highlights this problem by showing what happens if you do try and combine those two worlds together. Even if that combining is done with skill and care, as I'm sure it was.)

So we shouldn't combine them. PCs are great at what they do, and lousy at the other stuff. The reverse of that applies to post-PC devices too.

This last point is why no one is ever suggesting that people replace PCs at work with smartphones and tablets. That makes no sense. PCs are really, insanely great at the work stuff. Post-PC devices in that context would just get in the way. How post-PC devices help with our work lives is a) complex and b) a story for another day.

Keep 'em separate. And a smartphone is not a PC. And neither is your tablet. Your PC is, however, a PC.

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

Topics: Tablets, Smartphones, PCs

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  • Arguing semantics when it is really about usage patterns

    MBR is right about a phone (smartphone) being "more" personal than a PC. We always carry the phone with us and it will soon become wallet, travel/cinema/... tickets etc. The big point is that it is *small* enough to carry with us all the time.

    Not so with tablets. Tablets we pick up when we want to browse the net on a bigger screen with better bandwidth (as in screen real estate). The problem with tablets is that many consider them alternative to PC's, but the *usage* pattern is often that we soon *miss* some of the PC functionality on tablets.

    The current crop of tablets (especially iOS) are focused on information *consumption*. When we want to type a blog post, give feedback we soon miss PC functionality. Hence we buy keyboards etc for our devices.

    We (would like to) use tablets more like PCs than phones. Many of us would *love* if the tablets were more capable to the point where we could dump the PC.

    That's why tablets really are PCs. Just more portable PCs. But when someone cracks the problem of providing elegant and seamless mode switching from light-weight information consumption to content production in a single tablet-like device, they will have a winner.

    At this time it is ironically Microsoft and Canonical that are closest to achieving that goal. My bet is on Microsoft.
    • I think you think that

      But I'm not sure any of it is actually the case. Note the most popular tablet size.... 7-8 inches. Of all possible tablet sizes, that's the one least friendly to Office, Autocad, Visual Studio.... You will get no work done on it, other than special tasks designed for the forms factor, such as inventory and doing rounds.

      And yet it is what everyone buys. Why is that? It is because the device does not, in the mind of the buyer, have anything to do with what Microsoft and Canonical want you to want it for.

      Google, Samsung, and Apple get that.
      • Yep

        These devices are being used for simple computing but, not really for most real work.

        Spreadsheets, RAW Image Conversion, 3D Modeling, Database Work or Design, Video Editing, and honestly a lot of gaming is better suited to a real computer.

        Reading, some writing, social media, music, movies, email, browsing, and more simple games are better suited for Tablets.

        In the end, neither is going away anytime soon.
        • Neither going away...

          I think it's fine if both stay separate however; that way, I can purchase a tablet, iphone, when I (maybe) decide I need to. Meantime, I want my PC to continue to be my trusty get-it-done machine for 'personal computing' in word processing, low-level spreadsheet use, a little video and image work. Having struggled with the Win 8 OS on a new PC I set up for my son, I can say that I definitely HATE the Metro design and won't even consider purchasing a PC running on Win 8. We'll see about 8.1... Oh yeah, please keep them separate!
          • ... won't even consider purchasing a PC running on Win 8

            Try a MacBook Pro
          • try another approach...

            way, WAY too expensive and not customizable. try linux mint 15.. but wait (as they say on the tube_. mint 16 LTS is coming in late November. may as well wait until then. purchase your win8 box and wipe the drive (a fairly straight forward process under linux). then install linux mint 16 LTS. you'll save a whole buncha $$$, won't be locked into a very expensive single entity either. even better. go online & purchase a box with no OS. why pay for something you're gonne wipe anyway?
          • Windows 8

            It took me about 20 minutes to adapt to Windows 8.
            I remember hearing all these same types of comments when we switched from DOS to windows, then from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 etc.
            People don't like change; one of my favorite quotes is from Henry Ford discussing his potential customers “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
            Computers are just going to keep changing, even if you are not be able to comprehend why.
        • Totally agree..

          Different tools for different jobs.
          • However, what Matt and others forget

            is what is in-between work and play.

            For instance I have a PC on my desk for my work, but my work also involves going out into a farming field or a warehouse where I will need to do much of my work. I can not drag a desk with me or carry a laptop to the field or warehouse. That is where the smaller device comes into play. Be it for input, output or both it is still needed for work on the go. That does not mean my phone or tablet that is a PC can not also do all the fun stuff on the go also it just means that work and fun can be done with that smaller PC.

            Sure, if you only approach the issue from the one mindset of doing work or play Matt is right. But not everything is that linear. It is not all black or white, work or play. We are complicated organisms that cross many grey lines in our daily ventures.

            Computer, find me some more interesting article to read.....
          • There's an app for that

            Like Apple puts it..... 'There's an app for that'
      • MS needs Metro Office to change things

        Until a Metro version of Office shows its face, it is going to be hard for people to recognize tablets as productivity devices - MS Office being the flagship set of productivity apps available. But when Metro Office is introduced, and assuming it is implemented well, kids are going to want Windows tablets to do their school work, as well do their consumer related activities. Many adults are also going to want Windows tablets to take advantage of the Metro Office touch experience, as well as do their consumer related activities; and businesses will be pressured to adopt Windows 8 touch devices, to take advantage of Metro Office's modern and unique user experience at the office.

        The PC won't be relegated to the Office as some writers are suggesting, so long as it modernizes itself in the areas of OS, hardware, and apps - which it is now doing. It just needs Metro Office and other productivity apps to soundly disrupt the work relegation trend we are now seeing. Also people want separate devices in as much as they like carrying around a cell phone and a PDA, or even a smartphone and a point and shoot camera. Nope, people don't like carrying around more devices, they like carrying around less.
        P. Douglas
        • Office

          Believe it or not millions of people use computers in their work and never see any part of OFFICE. Medical personnel use tablets for gathering medical information from patients, automatically updating files online, sending prescriptions, etc. No OFFICE. Designers use them to carry plans, and make changes as needed onsite, sending the changes back to their computes at their headquarters. Salesmen use them for order taking, status inquiry, etc. No OFFICE. I have been in computers professionally, and privately, since 1965, and have never found a need for OFFICE. It isn't magic, and it isn't even the only package that does the same functions.
          • They *do* use them for all the things you say

            But they *also* use Office. Everyone has an Exchange account. Everyone needs to access Word and PowerPoint documents.

            Every. One. (Almost.)
            x I'm tc
          • Not everyone...

            Has a "Exchange" account. I've been working for 2 different companies over the last 15 years and have NEVER had a exchange account. One was just a plain ordinary Pop3 account, the other Lotus Notes. There's nothing magical about exchange. And as we get more and more into cloud services it's even less likely you need it. Power Point?? Really, yes it's a staple for salespeople, etc but not everyone needs it, not even close. Word?? Yeah right. Most people can get away with any really simple editor. rhunter1242 makes a very valid argument. To many of us thing about back office stuff, you know the IT staff, hr, etc. But there is a very large segment of people who never really need any of the MS family of products.
          • ditto

            I've never had an exchange account, and likely never will; nor do I use Word or Excel. People too quickly assume that their professional environment is everyone's professional environment.
          • Too quick to assume?

            I used to travel around repairing companies networks/systems... they ALL use MS Office. Have you checked the sales/profits from the office division? They must be selling this product to someone :)
          • Other software can open files

            You don't need MS Office to open office files. Other software can do that.

            Personally, I love MS Office, but we can get it really cheap through work.
          • Not really..

            Try opening a complex Word doc with headers, footers, and other complexities in Libre Office or Google docs and see what kind of word salad you get. Now I'm sure some here will make the "Doc is not open" or other excuses but the user doesn't care, they only care that their work looks like a game of madlibs.

            Does that mean that Libre office and Google docs don't have a use? of course not and in fact I'd argue for home users they work just fine but all it takes is that important proposal to look like word salad for businesses to see MS Office is the better choice in their situation.
            PC builder
          • Re: Every. One. (Almost.)

            Then I am one of the exceptions. Here is why:

            1. I don't use Office.
            2. I don't have a single Exchange account. (to be fair, I signed up for to reserve the user name, never ever logged in since)
            3. I need to access documents and presentations but not necessarily Word or PowerPoint. I never create my documents and presentations in that format. I might convert though, for someone who is forced to use only Microsoft products. I also never give out editable documents or presentations.

            In fact, if you ask me today, which tool I would use to edit documents etc, I could list a number of different applications, last of which will be Office.

            You might think, this is because I am some kind of fanboy or "Microsoft hater". To your surprise, my reasons to not ever consider Microsoft Office are entirely different and very pragmatic: this software does not run on the computing platforms I use daily. For the same reasons, I don't use Apple's iWork too.

            But, if you chose to subscribe to the fanboy theory, I will understand you. :-)
          • Just what suites do you use?

            You're obviously a MS hater... it spills through in every sentence you've ever written on this site. What office productivity suite do you use? I've been in IT for over 10 years and I've never witnessed a company use ANYTHING other than MS Office. Sure, there are alternatives, but businesses are here to make money, not rant on about a company they don't like and do everything in their power (to the detrminent of their bottom line) to avoid solutions that make sense. Please fill us in... I'd love to hear your reasoning.