The death of the PC: Invented by Apple, accelerated by Microsoft

Apple's iPad was designed to change computing, but Microsoft's bungling of Windows dramatically hastened the progress

We told you so: The world is entering a post-PC era in which new types of devices are replacing the traditional PC. Many people argued that the global love affair with the iPad and with smartphones like the iPhone and the Galaxy S III was an intoxicated dalliance that would run its course. Others -- such as myself and InfoWorld's Bill Snyder and Woody Leonhard -- countered that something different is going on. Known by the ungainly post-PC (coined by ex-Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie) moniker, it's a shift to much more personal, mobile, and freer computing.

We've seen a decline in PC sales for several years now, and both Dell and Hewlett-Packard struggle to figure out a new business plan as a result. But many people -- particularly those in enterprise IT, who tend to live in a Microsoft reality-distortion field -- have actively blinded themselves to the shift. But new sales numbers from IDC will surely open their eyes: PC sales shrunk by 14 percent in the last quarter, the largest drop ever, and the latest in a four-year series of sales declines. Even if you add Windows 8 tablets and convertibles to IDC's definition of a PC, the drop is still huge at 12 percent. And Asymco's Horace Dediu calculates that Windows PC sales dropped 16 percent (he factored out Mac sales). This is the "oh crap" moment.

[ InfoWorld's Galen Gruman explains why iPad apps can't replace your desktop software -- yet. | Subscribe to InfoWorld's Consumerization of IT newsletter today. ]

Apple created the conditions for the post-PC shift with its six-year-old Phone and three-year-old iPad, but Microsoft has inadvertently hastened the transition with its self-inflicted wound of Windows 8.

Apple's plan to kill the PC to change the game
When Apple's then-CEO Steve Jobs introduced the iPad three years ago, he predicted that tablets like the iPad would displace PCs for most users, and PCs would become the equivalent of the 1990s workstation: a specialized device used by a small percentage of workers for extreme computing, whether that mean computational capability or tied to needs for very large displays, specialty peripherals, or input mechanisms. He was right, and the PC industry should have listened.

It's no secret that Apple intended to transition the world from PCs to iPads. Jobs himself described how the iPad's iOS and the Mac's OS X would build off each other until they ultimately merged into something that wasn't just a more modern PC. It made a lot of sense for Apple to pursue this strategy; though the Mac regained much of its lost market share under Jobs' second stewardship of Apple, the world remained dominated by Windows, and beating the PC paradigm with an arguably better PC operating system wasn't likely to change that balance significantly. Apple needed a different playing field, so it created one -- a big bet fueled by Apple's iTunes success.

I fully believe Apple saw this transition taking five to 10 years -- certainly, the pace of cross-pollination between iOS and OS X suggests that.

Microsoft's bungling created a PC no one wanted
Then Microsoft sped up the process by being stupid, making the Windows PC undesirable just as the post-PC alternatives began surging in popularity. As a result, mobile sales (iOS and Android) are booming -- tablets will outsell PCs this year. Apple's Macs may be caught in the overall PC downdraft as well, though at half the pace, according to IDC, which says U.S. Mac sales last quarter declined 7.5 percent versus a 12.7 percent U.S. decline for PCs overall. Gartner estimates a 7.4 percent increase in U.S. Mac sales, though -- the two research firms are often out of sync on Mac sales estimates, so we'll find out on April 23 when Apple reports hard sales numbers.

Microsoft had been trying to create a tablet market for more than a decade before the iPad arrived, but its pen versions of Windows XP, Vista, and 7 were awkward to use, and the hardware was clunky. It had no sense of how to treat a touchscreen device, so it stuck a touchscreen on a flat laptop running the same old Windows.

When the iPad came along and showed that you needed to think different to get different, Microsoft panicked. It put its Office chief, Steve Sinofksy, in charge of the new Windows, later to be called Windows 8, and he led the creation of a new Windows user interface code-named Metro based on the Windows Phone UI that really did adopt a radically different approach to touch computing.

That made sense, but Microsoft decided it couldn't break from the past so dramatically, as Apple had done in iOS, though it was derived from OS X. So Microsoft married Windows 7 and Windows 8's Metro UI into what my colleague J. Peter Bruzzese -- a real Windows aficionado -- labeled "Windows Frankenstein."

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