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“What is post-PC”? — The Post-PC FAQ

What do we mean by “post-PC“? Why do people talk about “the death of the PC“? Surely PCs do more than their smartphone and tablet counterparts can ever do?

The picture is complex and confusing.

The reality is that users need, and will always need, both PC and post-PC devices.

What’s happening is a sociological shift where more of our individual lives are being done digitally. We are now able to build devices and services that serve us better when we’re sharing and engaging with the people and things that we love.

Post-PC is about life whereas “PCs” are just about the part of our lives that we give over to work.

For businesses — or more to the point, people whose livelihoods are dependent on PCs, this is not bad news. Companies will still need to make investment in PC-based systems as PCs are optimal for driving efficiency within commercial environments.

In fact, post-PC will likely be a net benefit as new opportunities emerge in the enterprise, allowing savvy individuals to take advantage of the shifts.

In this FAQ, we’ll answer questions that we’re asked (frequently) about post-PC.

What actually does “post-PC” mean?

And this is a good place to start. It’s the hardest question of the lot to answer.

It was coined by Steve Jobs shortly after the introduction of the iPad. It was meant to indicate that there was now a new form of computing device that would come after the PC.

What it refers to is not what a device actually is, but how it is used. To understand that difference, we need to go through the other questions.

This is somewhere where people often get confused. Make sure you’ve read and absorbed that last statement.

Examples of post-PC devices in the current market include virtually all smartphones including the iPhone, Android phones, Windows Phone devices, and BlackBerry devices, along with iPad, and Android tablets.

Windows tablets are not post-PC devices — they are PCs. But we’ll come to that.

How can I identify a post-PC device?

Post-PC devices have certain attributes which mark them out as different from PCs.

At The Platform, we define a post-PC device as having good showing in all of the following seven categories:

  • Always connected — post-PC devices work at their best with an internet connection, and suffer functionality-wise when they are offline.
  • Always available — post-PC devices are highly portable, are always with you, and have “battery-first” battery life.
  • Relationship-centric — post-PC devices connect you into the people and things that you love. (We’ll talk about this later.)
  • Low cognitive loading/appliance-like — post-PC devices are much less complex to use and maintain than PCs.
  • End-to-end security/intimidation-free — post-PC devices are locked down and secure making sure that the user does not suffer damage, embarrassment, or intimidation.
  • Monochronistic — post-PC devices are designed to do one thing at a time, allowing the user to dip out of some humanistic task, drop into the device and focus on an activity, and then go back out to the original task.
  • Primarily touch-based — post-PC devices main user interface is touch-based.

You can watch a video of me explaining the seven attributes of post-PC devices.

Is the PC dying?

No.

The PC will remain with us for the foreseeable future. What people mean by “the death of the PC” is about societal changes around how people use technology.

If you take the aggregate time that people spend using either a PC or a post-PC device, going forward the percentage of time spent on a PC will reduce as a proportion of the whole.

All references anywhere to “death of the PC” embody this idea. The PC becomes less important from the perspective of global society compared to post-PC devices.

If the PC isn’t dying, how do you explain the continuing decline in sales?

The market is changing. PCs are lasting longer, and people are finding acceptable utility in replacing casual-use, low-end PCs with smartphones and tablets.

Again, it’s about the total compute time across all of society. The PC is just becoming a smaller chunk of a larger whole, the majority of which will be post-PC devices.

Will I still make a living as an IT professional as post-PC becomes more popular?

Yes.

What’s likely to happen is that the enterprise IT space will become niche in terms of a much, much larger total market that covers the whole universe of compute devices and their users. (As per the last two points — the PC isn’t dying, it’s just becoming less important.)

If you earn money out of enterprise IT services (like most do), you’re unlikely to see any difference. Business still need to invest in IT systems.

The term to remember is “enterprise niche“.

What actually is a PC?

To understand post-PC, you need to understand “PC”. But the PC has been around for so long, it’s difficult to know what it is.

The PC was invented to drive efficiency in commercial operations. For example, “if we computerise our accounts, we’ll have better cash flow”. Since 1981, this has been the primary reason why people have bought PCs.

PCs are part of a lineage that starts with mainframes, go through minicomputers, and then into PCs. What we call a “PC” today is actually the fourth era shift, namely “internet connected PCs” that started with Windows 95.

All four of these shifts have been about building hardware and software solutions that drive commercial efficiency. That we use PCs outside of the temporal and physical boundaries of work is largely an accident.

Which brings us back to an earlier point — post-PC for life, PC for work.

But what about people who use PCs outside of work?

Laptops and desktops have, since about 1995, been increasingly co-opted by people who are looking to do things that are not about “commercial efficiency”.

A large part of this use is “social networking”. What we mean by this is not a “social networking service” like Facebook or Twitter, but rather we mean the process of people using a computer to reach out to the people and the things that they love.

This is “relationship-centric” computing.

The change that’s happening is that as relationship-centric computing through social networking services becomes the primary driver to own a compute device, people are now choosing post-PC smartphones and tablets to do that, rather than the default/only option of a PC.

What is “relationship-centric” computing?

This is the process of using compute devices (PCs or post-PCs) with the primary objective of connecting to people that the user has relationships with, or things/activities that the user is interested in.

This can be used to understand the main difference between PCs and post-PC devices. PCs are co-opted from business use and made to also do relationship-centric tasks. Post-PC devices are designed from the ground up to do relationship-centric tasks.

This also explains why post-PC devices are so bad at being used for “work”. (Whatever work means, but we’ll get onto that.)

Why should I care about relationship-centric computing?

Chances are you already do. Most of the users of this will use various social networking services to connect through to people they have relationships with.

It doesn’t have to be Twitter, or Facebook, or some specialised social network — it can just be email, a web forum, chat room, etc.

Humans are social creatures. For the first time now we’re building technology that support that basic need to be social, and that can do so at scale.

It sounds like post-PC devices are more about sociology and psychology than technology. Is that true?

Yes.

Post-PC devices are about relationships, therefore they are about sociological change.

This creates an interesting problem for technologists as they (the author included) tend to look at any form of compute device from a technical perspective first and a sociological perspective second. The trick is to reverse that in order to appreciate it.

Can post-PC devices be used for work?

The easiest way to define work is as “focused activity”.

When you use a PC, you go up to it, and you concentrate on what you’re doing. Whether you’re being paid to do it as part of your job, or studying, or you have a hobby that benefits from a PC — that doesn’t matter.

The specialism is important though. A post-PC device is not as good at work as a PC because that’s not the evolutionary path it’s followed. A PC is not as good at relationship-centric tasks as a post-PC device for exactly the same reason.

The difference between the two types of devices exists primarily to create this specialisation. It allows evolution of compute devices to break with the past with regards to them being work-based, commercial-efficiency devices, and turn into something that is about relationships first.

What role do post-PC devices have in the work environment?

This causes a lot of confusion because people tend to focus on the fact that a post-PC device can’t be used for “proper work”.

The reality of course is that being relationship-centric, post-PC devices are very applicable for use in work environments because (no surprise here) people also have relationships at work.

The trick is to use post-PC devices to improve relationships within work, in the same way that they can be used to improve relationships outside of work.

Why are people still buying PCs?

Because if you need a computer for “proper work”, PCs remain the best things to use.

What makes post-PC devices good at relationship-centric computing?

This question is one of the harder ones to get a handle on.

Post-PC devices are based on a principle of compute device design called “ubiquitous computing”. (This is often shortened to “ubicomp”.) The idea of ubicomp is that devices are “calm”, and that they live in the background. An example here would be a user who has a spare moment, takes out their phone, checks Facebook, learns something and/or creates something, and then returned the phone to their pocket or bag.

It’s this fact that the devices are always available (small enough to be highly portable, battery life so good you don’t think of them as needing to be plugged in), and always connected to the network and through to social networking services that seems to make them much better than PCs in this regard.

What does “PC Plus” mean?

This is one of the terms to describe what PC’s become as they evolve to meet the threat of post-PC devices.

It describes what the vision behind Windows 8 is all about. Windows 8 can be described as an amalgamation of two different operating system approaches. “Old Windows” describes what Windows has always been — a windows, icons, menus, pointer (WIMP)-based, polychronistic (multiple things at a time, e.g. multitasking) operating system. Old Windows also happens to be very “unconstrained” in terms of what you can do with it.

“New Windows”, what Microsoft originally called “Metro-style”, and which has a number of new names including “modern”, is more like iOS and Android. There’s no WIMP interface, it’s monochronistic (one thing at a time), and much more constrained.

Both operating system approaches are combined because there is no better approach available. A device that’s designed to work in two ways (focused work in the foreground in Old Windows; less focused, more ad hoc relationship-centric operations in New Windows) has to be “duct-taped” together like this.

Can a PC be “post-PC”?

If you buy a PC and only use the “New Windows” paradigm available in Windows 8, then yes. Otherwise, no.

But I can’t run Office on my iPad?

No, you can’t, and you almost certainly don’t want to.

(Although technically since this was written there is now a basic implementation of Office for iPhone. However, the point stands — that is not a “proper” Office implementation for the iPad, although it will run on it.)

That statement highlights a problem with how technologists understand post-PC. If you happen to be a technologist, there’s a very good chance you do feel like you would like to run Office on your iPad. And there’s a chance that if you could, you’d get something out of the experience.

However, the vast majority, the remaining 99.99% of users would not get value out of running Office on an iPad. Office is optimised for focused work on a normal PC. It doesn’t fit well with the relationship-centric nature of post-PC devices.

Surely a hybrid tablet/laptop is better than just a tablet?

Similar to the last point, this is something that technologists tend to look at differently to non-technologists. Technologists might look at a tablet and a laptop next to each other and have an intuitive sense that having two devices is inefficient and combining the two is a good idea.

However, there is a difference between “hybridity” and “convergence”. Hybridity just describes the process of putting things together. Convergence describes hybridity experiments that deliver value and gain acceptance.

Cellular phones and digital cameras are one example of hybridity delivering successful convergence.

In order for tablets to have maximum effectiveness, they have to be very small and very light. They have to operate at a scale below a laptop. Creating a hybrid tablet/laptop simply creates a poor result as it’s too small to be a good laptop, too big to be a good tablet.

What’s the optimal size and weight for a post-PC device?

For a post-PC device to be effective, it has to be able to connect you through to your digital relationships-slash-social networking services. This means it has to be “always available” and “always connected”.

For a smartphone, the optimal design is one where the user takes it with them regardless of what they are doing. In this way, smartphones are truly portable in a way that PCs are not.

For a tablet, the optimal design is one where the user takes it around a space where they happen to be — for example in a house where the user takes the tablet from bedroom, to lounge, to kitchen, etc. The device isn’t always with the user, but it is highly adaptable to where the user wants to use it within that environment.

This suggests that the optimal size for a tablet is 7″ to 8″, with a mass of around 350g (about 0.8 pounds).

What’s going to happen after post-PC?

We’re starting to see movement in the human-computer relationship space — a good example of this, although not without faults, is Apple’s Siri. The cleverness around Siri is not so much that it can understand what you’re saying, it’s that it tries to build context around your life as it builds a relationship with you.

This trend is likely to continue. After all, post-PC is all about relationship-centric computing. At the moment, that implies relationships between two human beings. Going forward, that should roll out to include machine relationships, even perhaps with machines having their own relationships without human involvement (“computer-computer relationships”).