Steve Jobs foretells a post-PC world in the near future. Is he an ingenious analyst or a false prophet?
In my last post, I tried to clarify what Steve Jobs actually means when he is predicting the post-PC world. Today, I will outline my opinion about his claim.
The term “post PC” is as old as the PC itself. The list of failed attempts to replace the PC with something better is getting longer and longer: network computers, web browsers, Java, thin clients, NeXT computers, Sun workstations, Macs, virtual desktops, etc. The list is certainly incomplete. You might remember a few more PC contenders. And if we are talking about replacing Windows on desktop computers, you can add a few operating systems that tried to challenge the PC world in vain: OS/2, Linux, Mac OS, Solaris, SCO Unix, etc.
So is Steve Jobs just another “end-of-the-(PC) world prophet”? What distinguishes him from the other post-PC preachers is that he has something to offer that is already very successful. As far as Apple is concerned, the post-PC world is already reality. The majority of Apple’s revenue comes from post-PC products (iPod, iPhone, iPad). So what does this mean for the rest of the IT industry? Is Apple just one step ahead and all others have to follow?
First of all, let me remind you what post-PC products are in Steve Jobs’ terminology. Post-PC products are high-tech devices that are married with liberal arts, are easier and more intuitive to use than PCs, and require the software to be intertwined with hardware.
You don’t have to be an IT expert to realize that all three criteria have always been Apple’s focus. So is Steve Jobs just claiming that post-PC products are simply Apple-like products? If this were the case, then Macs would also be post-PC products; however, in Steve Jobs’ opinion, they are not.
To understand if Jobs is right or not, you have to understand why a Mac is not a post-PC device. I think, it is mostly because of the second criterion. The point is that iPad is much easier and more intuitive to use than a Mac. There are various reasons for this, and their discussion is beyond the scope of this blog post. Key words are touch, curated computing, and—most important—a limited set of capabilities. All three of Apple’s post-PC products have one thing in common: They are highly specialized devices that were designed for a very limited set of tasks.
In my view, this is the main reason why people perceive them as easy to use. The reduced complexity simply minimizes the probability of users running into problems. Thus, you can do fewer things with an iPad than with a PC, but those tasks can be accomplished more efficiently. Its good design is optimized for its main tasks, and its stability comes from the intertwined software and hardware concept, resulting in a well-known high user experience.
To make my point clearer, I’d like to name another post-PC device that is even more “post-PC-like” than Apple’s products. It is Amazon’s Kindle. Like with the iPad, you can read eBooks with it. However, since the device was only designed for this one task, you can do it much more efficiently than with the iPad. The iPad is too heavy for eBook reading, the battery doesn’t last long enough for book worms, and the LCD display is only good for reading indoors.
It is not just that the Kindle is optimized for eBook reading; what has also contributed to Kindle’s success is that it is also Amazon’s book cloud, with numerous task-specific features such as the ability to synchronize books across multiple devices, lend books, share notes, and so on.
A Kindle is also easier to use than an iPad simply because there are fewer settings and functions. Also note that Kindle’s hardware and software are highly intertwined. The Kindle app on a tablet or smartphone can’t offer half the user experience of the Kindle device when it comes to book reading. The design of the Kindle 3, in particular, makes a book lover’s “heart sing.”
I think, it has become clearer now what the post-PC world is all about. Although in the beginning of the computer age we just had one personal computer that was good for all our computation tasks, we now need multiple devices for very specific tasks. If you look around in your house you might find other post-PC devices, such as game consoles or TV sets with Internet access. Of course, you have a smartphone, a digital camera, your kids have a Gameboy, and perhaps you already have a tablet, and your dining table will soon run Microsoft Surface.
Hence, in this sense, Steve Jobs is right. We are now entering an era where computers for highly specific tasks play an increasing role in our lives. In a way, it is justified to call these devices post-PC products simply because they have been invented after the PC. However, I suppose, Steve Jobs mostly loves the term “post PC” because it is quite helpful for teasing Microsoft and the rest of the PC industry and to unite his followers against this common enemy. Another question is whether there aren’t terms to describe the phenomenon more accurately. I like Specific Computer (SC).
But what about Steve Jobs’ main claim that in a post-PC world, PCs will only play a negligible role? Don’t we need those all-rounders anymore? I, seriously, doubt that. Look at the myriad of different things people do today with PCs. Is it really possible that we will have SCs for all those tasks?
Of course, this is absurd. I believe that we only will use an SC for those computation tasks that we do most often. Tablets are great for surfing the web on the couch, and using Skype on a smartphone is more convenient than on a PC when you go hiking. However, considering that the number of different tasks we do with computers is increasing at an exponential rate, it is much more likely that the importance of PCs will increase rather than decrease.
The fact that the iPad currently has a negative effect on PC sales is no argument against this claim. Of course, if someone has just purchased an overpriced “iPaid 2 much,” he won’t be buying a netbook the next day just because he figured out that typing long emails on an LCD screen is not really “easy” and “intuitive.” The “heart sing factor” will make him even more insistent that he can do everything with his beloved iPaid. But this will probably last only until the first flush of crush fades away. Then he will silently sneak back to his ugly and unruly but powerful and flexible PC.
Of course, tablets will have their place in every home and company. However, there is no such thing as a post-PC world. In evolution, all-rounders like cockroaches, rats, and humans have proven to be very successful creatures that can’t be wiped out easily. PCs are just like that. Steve Jobs might not like them because they are not always beautiful, but this won’t turn them into endangered species.
So do we have to include Steve Jobs in this long list of false end-of-the-(PC) world prophets? I am afraid the answer is: yes.