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

It's an argument that goes round and round. "Tablets and PCs are the same!" They're really not...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
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.

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