Post PC

Remember the Post-PC era?

The term Post-PC was first coined by MIT scientist David D. Clark in 1999 and was quickly adopted by both Microsoft’s and Apple’s former CEOs. Jobs popularized the term “post-PC” in 2007 (the launch of the first iPhone), and in 2011 when he launched iCloud, a service enabling Apple devices to synchronize data through cloud services, freeing them from dependency on a PC.

The Post-PC era was posited during the late 2000s and early 2010s presupposing a decline in the sales of personal computers (PCs) in favor of devices, phones, tablets, wearables, IoT, etc. These devices were mobile first (i.e. battery-first as opposed to plug-first), connected second and cloud-powered third. They were designed to run “apps” not “applications” and had new ecosystems with millions of developers selling through online-only stores, priced often as subscriptions rather than seat licenses.

In the last decade or so, the PC did endure an overall decline in sales while phones, tablets and wearables climbed to at least 10x volumes of the PC. But the last few months have shown a resurgence in PC sales. Certainly the necessity of working from home is the reason but will this last?

The fact is that the PC did not disappear. It certainly is still in use and there are buyers for it. There just isn’t a lot of growth or energy. There hasn’t been for a decade. The software and hardware efforts are uninspiring because the talent has moved elsewhere. The creativity, R&D budget have gone the same way.

But what about the Mac? The Mac is the PC from the company that more or less defined the Post-PC era. Would it not be the first to be sacrificed for the new future? As it stands, as the graph below shows, the Mac today is double the business it was decade ago and although it has been overtaken by wearables, it has kept ahead (after a time) of the iPad.

As it turns out the Mac is doing just fine.

The trouble with PCs, including the Mac, is that they are stubborn in how they define themselves. Like the power user, they see performance along certain dimensions. They also don’t see performance along new dimensions which devices offer with glee. For example connectivity to cellular networks (still missing in even the fanciest laptop but available on my watch.) Then there are the sensors which measure my heart rate, activity level, location, altitude, etc. Then there are cameras which on phones now boggle the mind. PC cameras are comical in comparison.

Then there is portability and usability without being plugged in.

Well, it was. With the M1, Apple has finally delivered the always-on feel of a tablet or phone and the more-than-one-day battery life. It also added a lot of neural engine horsepower and a lot of on-chip memory. Apple is delivering a system on a chip which makes the Mac more device-like in its integration. And sales are likely to rise, on the back of a great 2020 for the Mac. The form of the machine might even change with new designs being made possible by the lower heat profile and space savings.

And so I’m writing this post on a Mac. The graph you see above was created on the Mac. It’s possible to do all this my iPad and even on my iPhone but it would be harder. But I’m also willing to bet you’re reading this on a phone.

And that’s the crux of it. The PC is still the machine of choice for authoring while the device is the machine of choice for consuming and consuming will always be more popular. What the iPad has done is taken a share of PC use and in my case I do use it for some tasks like email a lot more frequently. The theory would suggest that the iPad will continue its upward trajectory while the PC would abandon the low end.

This disruption has already happened but it hasn’t been complete. The median performance band now belongs to devices but the professional will always ask for more of the performance which they see as productive while the consumer will always ask for more of the performance which they see as convenience. Here the market bifurcates.

What has been problematic with the smaller of the two markets has been the vicious cycle of lack of investment due to decreasing margins, commoditization and talent flight. What Apple is doing once again is ratcheting up the bar for the PC to make sure it’s the top choice for creative professionals. And as long as they are productive, the consumers will keep them employed if not in riches.