The end of the PC, courtesy of Microsoft

Apple dealt a severe blow to the traditional PC with the iPad, but it looks as if Microsoft itself will finish the job

For a couple months now, people have been buzzing about the iPad's role in propelling Apple to the top slot of computer sellers -- if you count the tablet as a computer, of course. More recently, we've heard the iPad now outsells not only desktop PCs in general, but also Hewlett-Packad's entire computer line (desktop and laptops). Many have pointed to this as the end of the PC era, but conventional wisdom contends that the PC's domination has a long time to go, even if it is on the slide.

I now believe the decline will be rapid, thanks to news of Microsoft's development of a touch-savvy version of its Office suite that will be nearly as functional as the 23-year-old suite found on traditional (meaning x86-based) PCs everywhere. I've long thought that the iPad, the iPhone, and their ilk were the future of computing -- these devices would be portable brains that extend their capabilities by docking into monitors, input devices, storage, and other resources. I have no doubt Apple's working on realizing the strategy, and over time its iPad will overtake the MacBook Air, then the other Mac variants as iOS subsumes or merges with Mac OS X. Others, such as Motorola Mobility (soon to be owned by Google), are also working toward that future.

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I believed Microsoft would be the brake that slowed this momentum, given its dependence on Windows and Office as major income sources. Microsoft's history is to let others innovate, then capitalize on those discoveries and its massive installed base to incorporate those breakthroughs.

But the future led by Apple and others works very much against the Microsoft vision and installed-based advantage, so I figured Microsoft would be wary of assimilation. Certainly, the confusing signals Microsoft has sent since September on the extent of its ARM support for Windows 8, much less Office, lent credence to that view. And a little over a year ago, departing CTO Ray Ozzie warned Microsoft it had to embrace the emerging post-PC era, a signal that I and others interpreted as meaning he left because Microsoft chose not to.

I may have been wrong. It now appears that Microsoft is doing one of its famous "make the aircraft carrier turn like a speedboat" maneuvers with Windows 8, as it did with the Internet in 2005 under then-CEO Bill Gates's orders. Credit seems to belong to Microsoft Windows president Steven Sinofsky, who took over Windows development after the Vista debacle, reworked it as the widely liked Windows 7, then charted the Windows 8 course -- and now appears to have taken over Microsoft's bumbling Windows Phone effort.

I hear increasingly from tech industry execs that Microsoft really gets it this time and has assembled a crack team to pursue a future where desktop and mobile are irrelevant. In this scenario, the future is about heterogeneous endpoints through which services and information flow as people move from one device to the next based on their needs and context. Yes, that describes the notion behind Apple's still young and limited iCloud ecosystem -- and behind Windows 8 and its companion Windows Live service.

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