Tablets are the 'post-PC era'? I beg to differ

Tablets are different from what came before. But CNET's Stephen Shankland thinks they're still fundamentally a facet of personal computing.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors | Semiconductors | Web browsers | Quantum computing | Supercomputers | AI | 3D printing | Drones | Computer science | Physics | Programming | Materials science | USB | UWB | Android | Digital photography | Science Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
5 min read
Apple's iPad 2
Apple's iPad 2 Apple

I've been hearing "post-PC era" so much now that I wince when I hear the term. Clearly it must be time for me to get something off my chest.

There is no post-PC era.

Not as I see the landscape, at least. To me, tablets are a big break with the past when it comes to user interface, but deep down, more stays the same than changes. And the better tablets get, the more they'll simply absorb what we do with PCs.

In short, tablets will become PCs. Different PCs from today's PCs, but PCs.

Granted, I might be using the term "PC" differently from the main proponent of the "post-PC" idea, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs, who eagerly trotted the phrase out over and over during the iPad 2 launch last week. Apple often means "Windows personal computer" when it uses the term "PC," as evidenced in the Mac vs. PC ads. And there was a day when PC Magazine, PC World, PC/Computing and their ilk were indeed devoted to the Wintel world and not Macs.

But I prefer the term PC in a more generic "personal computer" sense. I use a MacBook Pro, a Lenovo Windows XP laptop, and a Dell Windows 7 laptop, and to me they all feel like, well, personal computers. There are differences between the Windows and Mac machines, sure, but I use the tools for exactly the same work and personal tasks. In short, for personal computing.

Today's differences
Right now there are plenty of legitimate distinctions between tablets and PCs. First and foremost, tablets have a touch-screen interface rather than the traditional combination of a keyboard and a mouse or trackpad. They're smaller and lighter. What they lack in processor power they make up for in battery life. They come with a different operating system that means the vast array of PC applications won't run. And at least in the case of the iPad, they lack the profusion of ports to connect external monitors, digital cameras, wireless network dongles, backup systems, thumb drives, and, yes, heated slippers.

Then there's the matter of how people use tablets. There's plenty of overlap--Web browsing, e-mail, social networking, casual games--but there are differences as well. Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son has ditched his PC for an iPad at work, but most people probably aren't ready to follow him just yet even if conservative corporate IT administrators could be persuaded to make a pretty radical change.

Many routine work chores become harder or impossible on a tablet. Microsoft Office is absent, typing on a virtual keyboard isn't the same, and file storage and transfer is a more complicated matter.

On the flip side, there are things tablets can do that PCs today can't. Games, drawing apps, and other interactive software take on a new direct, physical connection with a large touch screen and an accelerometer that tells a program how a person is moving the tablet around. Watch Apple's demo of iMovie for the iPad to get a feel for how far user interfaces are moving away from WordPerfect 5.1.

In addition, tablets function as book readers much more gracefully than laptops and are significantly more portable. The battery life means they're not nearly as tethered to power sockets. And the instant-on availability means people put off by the hassle of booting a PC might grab a tablet for a mid-conversation search to identify six wives of Henry VIII.

All these new options for tablets lead Gartner to agree with the post-PC idea: "We expect growing consumer enthusiasm for mobile PC alternatives, such as the iPad and other media tablets, to dramatically slow home mobile PC sales, especially in mature markets," said George Shiffler, a Gartner research director, last week.

In other words, to some extent, it's an either-or situation, where tablets replace PCs in some circumstances.

Tomorrow's similarities
To this point, I agree with the "post-PC" idea, too. Smartphones and tablets are qualitatively different from PCs, and they're supplanting PCs to some significant extent both when it comes to purchasing choices and daily usage.

But when I unleash my imagination and fast-forward a few years, I think the distinction between what we call PCs and tablets will fade.

Let's start with peripherals. Today, you can connect a Bluetooth keyboard to your iPad. As I see things shaking out, wireless connections--Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Direct, or something else--also will permit many other devices to be attached. And as tablets adapt to the business world, I predict they'll get ports. Maybe Intel's new Thunderbolt, though doubtless expensive today, will provide a one-port-to-rule-them-all simplicity that will get along better with the sleek tablet world.

Processor power, too, will improve. Certainly very thin and light designs can't accommodate the hot and power-hungry CPUs of high-end or even mid-range PCs today, but the better mobile processors become, the more average computer user's workload they'll be able to handle.

The way I see things shaking out, people will often end up carrying a tablet with them. When necessary, modular keyboards, mice, and large monitors will be linked up to assemble something that would be awfully hard to think of as anything but a PC. Maybe for the laptop crowd, people who don't always have the luxury of a desk to clutter up with assorted accessories, keyboards will snap on or be built into optional covers.

I don't think PCs, as we see them today, will die out. But they'll be relegated to a smaller niche. Laptops have steadily encroached into the mainstream PC world, edging tower and desktop PCs away from the center of the market toward those on a tight budget, gamers, workstation users, and cubicle farm dwellers. Tablets, I think, will do the same thing to today's conventional laptops--push them out to the fringes where people need optical drives or major processor power or aren't willing to pay a premium for lots of flash memory or something slimmer than a pancake.

A continuum of PCs
"It's a shame, almost, that we squandered the term 'personal computer' 30 years ago," lamented the John Gruber of Daring Fireball while swooning over Apple's iPad 2 announcement.

Nonsense, I say. "Personal computer" was a perfectly reasonable term then, and the term will be just fine until Ray Kurzweil's singularity arrives and Skynet converts all the humans into smart matter.

A MITS Altair, a TRS-80 Model 4, an Osborne 1, an Apple II, a BBC Micro, a Macintosh SE, a Gateway 486DX2-40, a Power Computing PowerCurve 601/120, an IBM ThinkPad, an Asus eee PC--they're all PCs to me.

There have been some revolutionary shifts over the years, of course. Graphical user interfaces, hard drives, networking, graphics processors, portability, CD-ROM drives, the Internet, Wi-Fi--each of these have profoundly changed what a PC is.

With tablets, we get touch screens, orientation sensitivity, and geolocation.

In the future, maybe we'll get voice control that works, a high-speed, all-purpose optical communications port, biometric identification that rids us of our 450 usernames and passwords, smartphones that beam information to our contact-lens displays, batteries that recharge from the sun or from a glass of whisky, truly reliable and pervasive wireless networking, and nanobots swimming among our neurons so we can download the ability to speak Mandarin Chinese.

Is it personal? Is it computing? Then it's a personal computer.