The Personal Computer

Is it the end of the PCAlmost exactly 30 years ago, IBM launched the ‘PC’, it wasn’t the first Personal Computer but, helped by Microsoft’s software and Intel’s processors, the IBM PC became the dominant Personal Computer in just a few years.

Ironically, most people would probably associate Microsoft with the PC more than IBM, in part due to the fact that the market was soon flooded with IBM PC clones and IBM soon became merely one of many manufacturers, but also because Microsoft Operating System was what the end user saw each time he turned his PC on.

Microsoft was there on the cusp of home computing and has dominated for all three of those decades, being the chosen OS on 90% of home computers.

The PC is Dead, Long Live the Tablet

Now, one of those involved in creating the PC, IBM’s Mark Dean has said that the era of the PC is over.

I, personally, have moved beyond the PC as well. My primary computer now is a tablet. When I helped design the PC, I didn’t think I’d live long enough to witness its decline. But, while PCs will continue to be much-used devices, they’re no longer at the leading edge of computing. They’re going the way of the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records, CRT and incandescent light bulbs.

It’s funny, I was watching a film from the 90s recently and saw someone using a typewriter and laughed at how incongruous it looked, a device that I had pretty much forgotten had even existed in the recent past. Will we soon be thinking the same about the humble personal computer? Laughing at how we struggled to use such primitive and inflexible devices?

According to IBM and Steve Jobs we will.

Microsoft, who led the way through the late 80s and early 90s, famously missed the internet and since then have consistently misread or been behind the curve. They’ve gone from a trend setter to a hapless follower of fashion in the last two decades, with Apple now seen as the primary innovator of home computing, particularly since the introduction of the iPad. Microsoft with no real touchscreen OS, have again been caught lagging when the next ‘Big Thing’ has come along.

However it is not the first time that we have seen these types of tablet devices billed as the next big thing. In 2001 they were called Tablet PCs and ran a stripped down version of Windows XP, and it was Bill Gates touting them as miracle machines. However back then touch screens were not good enough to be used effectively so Tablet PCs were really ‘pen enabled PCs’, at least according to Microsoft.

They never really caught on, although the industry refused to kill them off completely.

Next came Project Origami in 2006, otherwise known as the Ultra Mobile PC. The ridiculously expensive and underpowered devices oddly didn’t catch on but did demonstrate that Microsoft and the hardware manufacturer’s just weren’t accurately predicting what the consumer wanted. UMPCs are technically still going but the format is in reality, dead.

A little over a year later, it was once again demonstrated to the ‘industry’ that it was the consumer, and not they, who dictated the trends with the launch of the netbook. Netbooks became a massive, and to many, a surprise hit and almost single handedly kept computer sales going during the economic slump. Consumers couldn’t get enough of the small, low powered and cheap mini-laptops, which, aside from their size, were almost the complete opposite of UMPCs.

Tablet PC Vs Netbook

Microsoft’s gamble was on UMPCs meant that they almost completely missed netbooks. Most of the early netbooks ran Linux, a free operating system, in part to keep costs down, but also because netbooks, being low powered, were unable to run Microsoft’s latest OS, Windows Vista.

A Laptop, Phione and Tablet computerEventually Microsoft caught on, and resurrected the aged Windows XP for netbooks, before shipping the new Windows 7 Starter Edition on netbooks, virtually forcing Linux out of the market.

Microsoft also belatedly caught on with the new style of Tablets, i.e. ones without the use of a stylus. Unfortunately, even Windows 7 wasn’t really designed as a touch screen interface and so Microsoft has been without a true Tablet OS throughout the current rise of the tablet, lagging behind the likes of Google and Apple.

The major player in the tablet market is now Apple, who overtook Microsoft as the world’s largest technology company last year, helped in no small part by its iPod, iPhones and iPads. For Apple, the future is in tablets, where they look set to dominate.

Google however, has its own idea of where the future of computing lies, and gambled on it lying in the recently launched Chrome OS, the operating system that runs in the Cloud. Chrome OS ships on Chromebooks), which are fairly standard netbooks with internet access and all the applications are run online and document storage is also online. This means that not only does the Chromebook not have to be powerful, but also that the user doesn’t need to purchase or install any software, or worry about things like viruses.

Perhaps a little optimistic, as both Apple and Linux has met this criteria for years and yet had little market penetration.

The magic word here seems to be ‘the Cloud’, which sounds great, but in reality means that all your information will be stored, probably permanently, on Google’s servers. The only application that runs on a Chromebook is the browser, Google Chrome, meaning that if you have your preferred software, you’ll have to find a Google browser based alternative.

The Future?

IBM, despite building the first PC, are no longer in the PC making business, they apparently saw that the business had little future, selling that side of the business to Chinese firm Lenovo in 2005. According to Mark Dean et al, we are now in the post-pc era.

Personally, and to paraphrase Mark Twain, I think reports of the PC’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Many claimed that radio, and then television, and then video, CDs, DVDs and the internet as well as e-readers would be the end of the book. But no. Book sales have risen despite these inventions.

A computer keyboard, lacking on tablet computersWe are not living the post-PC era, the so called replacements for the PC are merely ancillary devices. Mark Dean said that he has replaced his PC with a tablet computer, I find it hard to believe that this is as total as he implies unless he no longer needs to write emails, or any kind of document. Typing on a tablet is similar to typing on a smartphone, fine for short texts and Twitter, but you wouldn’t really want to be writing lots of emails on it, or anything else. Not to mention the fact that you can’t really print from a tablet, does Mark Dean no longer need to print anything?

Then there is the software, you can’t just install software on tablets, you’d have to get Apps from its App Store and if there isn’t anything that meets your requirements, you’ll need to use a PC.

Also, an often overlooked drawback to tablets, is that they are less efficient, not only is typing slower for most people, but also navigating the OS. With a mouse you can simply select an item, or search for it, using a tablet usually involves a fair amount of scrolling, and moving through screens.

As for Chrome OS, it is a similar story. As long as you’re connected to Google’s servers and only want to use the limited software on offer, it may be of use. However if you stay in a hotel, or anywhere else, that has no Wifi, or other internet access, then the device is useless save to lean on to make notes on paper.

Indeed, unlike a tablet computer, which does have its uses, it is difficult to see the attraction in basically doing all your computing, and storing all of your data, on someone else’s computer. There is nothing that can be done on ChromeOS that cannot be done on any netbook with a browser already, and Chromebooks are more expensive that netbooks, yet are impeded by design to prevent user from getting the best out of the device.

No, we are not living in a post PC era, far from it, we are in fact discovering new ways to use our PCs and new ways of accessing information and data we create on them.

I suspect that Mark Dean still has a PC in his office, and his home, as he says himself, the tablet is primary computer, not his only computer. He may well use his tablet most of the time as he will likely carry it around with him, but I am sure that when it comes to doing anything substantial or productive, the PC is his primary choice.

As it will be for all of us for quite some time to come.

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