'Post-PC' does not mean 'no PC'

The accelerating decline of PC sales doesn't mean they'll disappear, but it means computing will change dramatically

Last week, I wrote a post entitled "The death of the PC: Invented by Apple, accelerated by Microsoft" that laid out how the dramatic drop in PC sales last quarter -- part of a four-year trend -- was the fulfillment of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs' vision that iPads and other new device types would supplant the PC for most users. I cited how Microsoft's poorly designed Windows 8 was making that transition happen faster.

As you'd expect, IT traditionalists ridiculed the notion of everyone "fumbling" with tablets and smartphones" rather than use PCs with big screens, mice, and keyboards for "real work." But one of the smartest tech analysts out there, Forrester's Ted Schadler, wrote a post the same day entitled "Enough already with the 'death of the PC era' garbage." What's ironic is that Schadler and I agree, as we often do, on what's really going on.

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

The issue is what "post-PC" means. Some see the phrase (coined by ex-Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie, ironically) as meaning that PCs disappear from the face of the earth, and everyone will use mobile devices instead. (In their minds, that means today's mobile devices.) That's not what post-PC means.

Schadler argues that we'll see a shift to PCs being the minority device in use, and users (and companies) will replace them less and less often because they continue to do what they need to pretty much as-is. Exactly -- I referred to this as becoming the equivalent of workstations two decades ago: specialty devices used by people who need more than the mainstream devices offer.

Most employees use just Microsoft Office, a Web browser, and Outlook. An iPad or Android tablet today offers all of these (using Quickoffice or iWork instead of Microsoft Office, and using a native email client instead of Outlook), just three years after the debut of the iPad. It's becoming increasingly common for business travelers to take only an iPad with them, since they can do these functions on the road and gain all-day battery life and almost-anywhere connectivity to boot.

I spoke to one non-Silicon Valley CIO recently who has stopped buying laptops for employees because they never leave the office -- employees use iPads or home computers when away from the office. He's preparing for the day three or so years hence when he'll stop buying PCs for anyone other than those who need them: engineers, developers, accountants, and so on.

Does this mean that a mobile device today can just replace a PC as a person's only computer? Usually no. A PC's big screen, multiple input methods, and OS that runs apps with as yet no mobile equivalents all matter. As Schadler points out from Forrester's research, people are now using two or three devices whereas before they used just a PC.

That's post-PC, meaning a world that has gone beyond the PC, even as it continues to fill a useful role. (Schadler also predicts that PC sales will continue to decline because people will replace fewer of them and many new PCs will be tablets, mainly at home initially but increasingly in business as well.) "Post-PC" does not mean "no PC."

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