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What's a Post-PC device?

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer argues that the tablet computers (aka slates, media tablets or iPads) are PCs. Steve Jobs argues that they are post-PC devices. There are analogies to trucks, cars and various metaphors for what these new devices symbolize. Some argue that because the iPad needs a PC, it’s not a post-PC device.

But how to define a new generation of computing? Since the PC is not the beginning of computing, it may make sense to look to the eras of computing that preceded it.

The first post-mainframe computers worked alongside mainframes and were typically used by engineering departments (vs. the finance and accounting departmental role occupied by mainframes.) They did not require a dedicated (often external) mainframe service team and could be administered by in-department system administrators. Input was not through dedicated data entry personnel and output was not a ream of folded paper. Users could use a CRT terminal to interact with the computer directly. Digital Equipment Corporation, Control Data, HP, Honeywell, Prime, et. al. grew up in the shadow of IBM but thrived. Their products were cheaper and simpler to operate. Initially, the products were not more powerful.

The first post-minicomputer microcomputers (also known as PCs) were used alongside mainframes and mini-computers. They were typically used for 2-dimensional spreadsheets analysis by individuals in many departments and were easier to justify cost-wise than the time-sharing cost structure of the incumbent computers. Many microcomputers were able to access mini-computers and mainframes through terminal emulation software (and sometimes special hardware boards) so they were still able to work with existing business processes. They did not require dedicated personnel for administration but had a shared support department. Input and data storage were on the “desktop” as was printing. Compaq, Dell, HP, Apple and IBM embraced this new form factor. Their products were cheaper and simpler to operate than the previous generation of computers. Initially, the products were not more powerful.

The first post-microcomputer tablets are used alongside microcomputers for tasks such as presentations and entertainment. They have software available that allows access to desktop computers and services dependent on PC-architectured servers. They depend on PCs for data backup and software updates. They do not require IT support. They do not require a keyboard or a desk. Apple and many mobile phone vendors are embracing the new technology. They are cheaper and simpler to operate. The new products are not more powerful.

To define a new generation of computing by its isolation and exclusion of the previous generation is not sustained by the history of computing.

I would suggest that the definition of a new generation of computing is that the new products rely on new input / output methods and allow a new population of non-expert users to use the product more cheaply and simply.

I might add that the consequences of each generational shift are:

  1. Consumption increases
  2. Skill required decreases
  3. Support required decreases
  4. There are new applications and use cases
  5. The economics are not favorable for incumbents
  6. The economics are favorable for new entrants
  7. The older generation slowly fades through diminished growth but never disappears