The PC isn't dead, but it's still a post-PC era

The "post PC" theme is often taken as an argument that the PC is going away. That's not happening but there's still a major shift going on.

In early June, market researcher IDC cut its forecast growth for PCs in 2011 from 7.1 percent to 4.2 percent. Gartner Group, another IT analyst firm, had earlier trimmed its numbers. Meanwhile, Apple iPad sales continue to skyrocket, with 183 percent growth compared to the year-ago quarter. Android tablets remain more of a mixed bag when it comes to gaining buyers, but they'll gain traction over time as well.

Those numbers would seem to lay out the case for a post-PC world rather starkly. Especially when you consider that they don't even consider phones which, in many emerging markets, are the "computer" of choice. Indeed, IDC explicitly attributes some of the soft demand to new types of devices. "Consumers are recognizing the value of owning and using multiple intelligent devices and because they already own PCs, they're now adding smart phones, media tablets, and eReaders to their device collections," said Bob O'Donnell, an IDC vice president. "And this has shifted the technology share of wallet onto other connected devices."

Tablets won't kill the PC but they're part of a new generation of devices that replace them for many uses. Apple

However, if you're, say, the major music labels, that sort of growth would be considered amazingly good. Album sales continued their free fall in 2010, falling another 13 percent in what has become a rather predictable year-end accounting. Or you could be Eastman Kodak. A recent quarter saw its film business revenue declining by 14 percent.

Against that backdrop, it's hard to call a product class with single-digit positive growth (with higher growth forecast for the longer term) that's headed to about 360 million units sold in 2011 passe. Certainly compared to things that are well on their way to becoming niches even in the near term.

There's a reason for this. As I and others have observed , start creating presentations, working with big spreadsheets, or otherwise engage in many types of content creation and a tablet quickly gets out of its comfort zone. These tasks aren't impossible for the most part but they are usually a lot easier and more straightforward on a notebook.

In short, the PC is hardly dying even if its growth slows and it stops being the default choice of client device for as many different things.

That said, it's both fair and meaningful to use the "post PC" shorthand. By way of (doubtless imperfect) analogy, there was once an "Age of Rail" when that mode of transportation was very much at the center of the transportation and economic world. We still have railroads but it would be hard to critique someone who, sometime in the 1950s, opined that we were now in a "post rail" world.

For one thing, even beyond sales numbers, I see a huge amount of evidence that tablets are changing all manner of long-held ways of accessing and consuming information and media. I was speaking at the Campus Technology 2011 event in Boston yesterday and iPads were perhaps the biggest single topic of conversation. One anecdote that particularly struck me was the observation that, after getting accustomed to tablets for about a year, students want to move away from traditional textbooks en masse.

Furthermore, tablets aside, PC-centricity is very much a developed markets view. Move beyond the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan, and much of the rest of the world is centered on phones--both smart and otherwise.

The shift to hosted services from Facebook to Google to iCloud are a big part of the shift. The PC as the home's digital hub never really happened in the purest sense envisioned by the likes of Intel's Viiv initiative. However, the PC was nonetheless mostly the place where you stored your music and downloaded your software. That hub is rapidly moving out into the network and local devices can increasingly be "disposable."

Finally, these changes are noteworthy because they have major implications for the vendor landscape. The PC era evolved to something of a monoculture that was maintained in large part because the application ecosystem placed a heavy premium on having a universal (or at least near-universal) processor and operating system platform. That's no longer nearly so much the case in a post-PC world.

About the author

Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.

 

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