Let’s Stop Classifying the iPad as a PC

by Patrick Moorhead   |   December 6th, 2011

Last month, Canalys reported that “Apple is on track to become leading global PC vendor”. That would be a tremendous accomplishment, given that no reports had Apple in the top 5 at the end of 2010. How will Apple accomplish this? Well, according to Canalys, they will do it with iPads. You know, a “PC” without physical keyboards, trackpads, or mice. This re-classification got me thinking, what is a PC and how wide does this definition go?

I must point on very early that I am not debating here if the iPad can duplicate, replace or augment certain usage models a PC can do. I know first-hand this is true because I use my iPad now in circumstances that two years ago I would have only used my PC. A few examples are airplane trips and at Starbucks. I am not alone. Respected journalist Harry McCracken wrote a piece on Technologizer  entitled, “How the iPad 2 Became My Favorite Computer“.  That is NOT what I am asking. I am asking about the industry classification of the device.

I’d like to propose a few tests and run a few products through to see what filters out. A PC today must have or be:

  • Electronic: a PC must run off some kind of electric power, AC or DC.
  • Operating system: a PC must run something above BIOS or machine code
  • Personal: the PC is designed for one or a few people, not many. In other words, it’s not a multi-user server. (Clarification: It could serve many people, but isn’t classified as a server.)
  • Portable: a PC can be moved
  • Apps: a PC must be able to run an application above the operating system level
  • Storage: a PC must be able to store personal data, settings or content
  • Customizable: a user can change the PC’s settings
  • Input: a user can input data so that the PC will react to commands
  • Display Output: the PC will visibly show data based via some visible display technology

So, this seems fair, doesn’t it? Well, what products then are “personal computers” by with this definition?

Echo Photo

           

Is this fair? Some of the items above even have generally accepted industry designations like e-readers, consoles, watches and refrigerators. Well, so does the iPad. IDC, Gartner, and Forrester already designated the iPad a “tablet”, so it seems there’s precedence.

We all know the iPad isn’t a computer; it’s a tablet, so why do we all keep pretending? It is fun, I know, even I’m amused when writing this. So what is a PC?

I believe a PC has all the nine characteristics at the top of the page but with the following conditions:

  • display greater than 5″
  • physical keyboard
  • physical mouse or trackpad
  • light enough to be picked up by an average age adult 
  • open application environment where users can load, side-load without having to jail-break

While there will always be exceptions to the rule and definitions will evolve over time, I suggest this definition could help the industry to simplify and better educate.

Does any of this classification debate anything?  While I agree with Tech.pinions colleague Ben Bajarin when he says, “Consumers don’t care nor think about it.  They just hire products to get jobs done”, I do believe it matters a lot.  Companies, investors, developers and consumers are influenced by classifications.  Classifications get used to describe market share, which then impacts financial analysts, which then could impact the stock price of the company. This is also a factor that comes into play with technology investments. “Should I develop this piece of technology for the PC or tablet market”?

My final thoughts are on the future.  The way technology is headed in the future, calling the iPad a PC will set precedence that will only lead to even more confusion and misinformation.  I believe there’s a scenario where the smartphone has a chance to dethrone the PC.  If people change their usage models and start adopting it widely, should we re-classify the smartphone as a PC in a few years?   If the answer is “yes”, then let’s also be prepared in 2015 to announce, “Timex could become the leading PC maker in 2016″.  Let’s stop classifying the iPad as a PC, it only serves to confuse people.

I’d love hear your thoughts. Do you believe an iPad should be classified as a PC?

Also see: Who Really Needs a PC Anyway?

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Patrick Moorhead

Patrick Moorhead was ranked the #1 technology industry analyst by Apollo Research for the U.S. and EMEA in May, 2013.. He is President and Principal Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, a high tech analyst firm focused on the ecosystem intersections of the phone, tablet, PC, TV, datacenter and cloud. Moorhead departed AMD in 2011 where he served as Corporate Vice President and Corporate Fellow in the strategy group. There, he developed long-term strategies for mobile computing devices and personal computers. In his 11 years at AMD he also led product management, business planning, product marketing, regional marketing, channel marketing, and corporate marketing. Moorhead worked at Compaq Computer Corp. during their run to the #1 market share leader position in personal computers. Moorhead also served as an executive at AltaVista E-commerce during their peak and pioneered cost per click e-commerce models.
  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/TGZ75URQ6DKTCNXV3RV36ZKALQ Matthew

    Let’s assume that the idea of a keyboard and mouse goes by the wayside, and that iPad-like devices become the most popular computing devices. What will you call them? I’d say the iPad is the most “personal” computing device out there right now.

    That being said, there is a long-standing definition of the “PC” which, to many people, means the tower hooked to a monitor and keyboard.

    Perhaps “PC” is a bad term for the next generation of personal computing devices. What should they be called instead, I wonder?

  • http://twitter.com/bknabe Bert Knabe

    I agree with most of what you say, but you need to remove one of your PC ‘requirements’ – that it be portable. A desktop PC is movable, but it doesn’t fit the common understanding of portable. One indicator your definition of portable is too broad is that a full size refrigerator fits it. I’d like to see you toting that to work every day. :^)

  • Mark

    For many years (and as far as I know still) cash registers with some sort of Microsoft operating system for hooking into an inventory database were considered PCs for marketshare purposes, thus skewing the numbers in Microsoft’s favor.

    I assume that your criteria would also reject such devices in the interests of a fair playing field.

  • Anonymous

    >physical mouse or trackpad

    So DOS computers circa 1986 were not PCs? That will be news to Microsoft.

    Your arguments are the same as the ones made against the Mac in the DOS era. The Mac is not a PC because (enter some bogus metric here.) Now you can’t even conceive of a PC without a mouse. This is telling.

    Why do you care if an iPad is classified as a PC? What difference in anyone’s life will that make unless you are/or work for a PC manufacturer?

  • Anonymous

    Your bias is clear. Your definition of “personal” eliminates all *nix systems, including Unix, Linux, and Mac OS X; as *nix is inherently multi-user. That means your PC = DOS / Windows only. By your definition of “personal” I can convert a PC into not-a-PC by installing a different OS. I can also convert a by-your-definition PC into not-a-PC by installing an application like Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) or Apache.

    Your extended definition eliminates all DOS / Windows computers, as DOS / Windows does not require a physical mouse or trackpad. Pre-Macintosh DOS computers did not even support mice or trackpads.

    I would challenge your definition of “open application environment”; except I don’t know what “load, side load” means. I think it means that you are once again defining a PC based on installed software. If that were the case, then you would be eliminating all computers that did not come with pre-installed software; specifically, a pre-installed Operating System that meets your approval.

    By your definition, computers at libraries and internet cafes are not PCs, because they can be used by many and the user can not change the settings without jail-breaking. A PC becomes not-a-PC once you install parental controls. Your work computer may or may not be a PC depending on how strict the IT department’s policies are.

  • http://rob53.myopenid.com/ Robert

    Patrick, I have 35 years of high-level experience/management in companies operating computer-assisted publication and presentation systems. Even back in 1977, we were using tools that contained computers, had I/O devices, and fit the commonly accepted definition of a computer. For you to claim a tablet is not a computer shows your lack of understanding of computers. The iPad has some much more computing power and capabilities that your PCs of 5-6 years ago. Why are you so biased against tablet computers? Just because Microsoft has so few, if any? You need to open your mind to new trends. The term PC is not something that is static, no matter how much you want it to be. It has become a generic term for any personal computer, not just an IBM PC (original meaning). No, I don’t like calling my Macs PCs but I will call them, all of them including the iPad, a personal computer. Tablets, at least good ones like the iPad, have the ability to extend the desktop of a personal user, providing another variation of a personal computer’s capabilities. Don’t sell tablets short just because you don’t understand how they are meant to be used.

  • Anonymous

    I would agree that there should be some agreement on what a PC is, otherwise anything could be a PC, including a phone. The problem is, it seems that some people are trying to hard to make sure the iPad is not classified as a PC. I’m not sure I understand the motivation behind this.

    “We all know the iPad isn’t a computer; it’s a tablet, so why do we all keep pretending?”

    No, we don’t all know the iPad isn’t a computer. Also, just saying it’s a tablet, therefore not a computer is like saying a laptop isn’t a computer because it’s a laptop. That’s ridiculous. You’ve simply described the form factor of the computer. Why then did “Tablet PCs” count as PC sales? Will the industry pundits treat Windows 8 based tablets differently? Microsoft sure thinks they are PCs.

    Anyway lets review your proposed criteria…

    “display greater than 5″” – No issues. We already have 4.5″ phones. 5″ is a reasonable cut-off.

    “physical keyboard” – Why? Text input is text input. Do people who purchase cases with bluetooth keyboards get reclassified as computers then? This is just silly.

    “physical mouse or trackpad” – Again, why? Laptops don’t have mice. The entire screen of a tablet is a trackpad. This suggestion makes no sense.

    “light enough to be picked up by an average age adult” – What does weight have anything to do with this and what impact would this criteria have on big tower workstations?

    “open application environment where users can load, side-load without having to jail-break” – So, if Apple were to someday limit application installations to their app store, it would cease being a computer? Microsoft is building an app store for Windows 8, what if they followed suit? What does side-loading of apps have to do with being a computer? Either you can have apps or not.

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  • Anonymous

    The definition of a PC is quite clear. It is a personal computer. In other words, it is a computer for personal use by it’s owner.

    Is the iPad a computer? Yes.

    Is it designed for personal use? Yes.

    Is the iPad a PC? Yes.

    End of lesson.

  • ITALIANIN845

    I read this article and I have one thing to say. IDIOT!!

  • Sam

    Why does the keyboard have to be physical? Does selling an iPad bundled with one of the cases that add a Bluetooth keyboard suddenly turn it into a “PC”? I would argue that yes, keyboard input is essential to the PC experience, but that “physical” is over-specifying.

    And why the requirement that apps have to be able to be “side-loaded”? I think the mere ability to buy and run programs that were not shipped with the machine is sufficient for this definition.

    Also, I include a touch-screen in the “or trackpad” classification.

    Thus, the iPad makes it through the revised criteria that the rest of your systems do not. It is clearly much, much “closer” to a PC than any of your tongue-in-cheek examples, and it’s not unreasonable to include it.

  • Sam

    Why does the keyboard have to be physical? Does selling an iPad bundled with one of the cases that add a Bluetooth keyboard suddenly turn it into a “PC”? I would argue that yes, keyboard input is essential to the PC experience, but that “physical” is over-specifying.

    And why the requirement that apps have to be able to be “side-loaded”? I think the mere ability to buy and run programs that were not shipped with the machine is sufficient for this definition.

    Also, I include a touch-screen in the “or trackpad” classification.

    Thus, the iPad makes it through the revised criteria that the rest of your systems do not. It is clearly much, much “closer” to a PC than any of your tongue-in-cheek examples, and it’s not unreasonable to include it.

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  • Anonymous

    I say all of these things you mentions are personal computers. To me the most personal computer I own is an iPhone. It is always with me, always connected, it runs programs, I can enter things in and send things out.

    I think the better way to think about things is to refer to PCs by their form factors: Pens, Monitors, Sensors, Televisions, Consoles, Convertibles, Notebooks, Desktops, Phones, Tablets, Sliders, and Embedded.

  • Anonymous

    Patrick, your ridiculously arbitrary and restricted definitions of what is a PC smack of the typical industry commentator terrified of the fact that Apple is suddenly on the verge of being the largest PC manufacturer on the planet.

    This of course cannot be so you desperately try to reclassify Apple’s Most personal of personal computers so it doesn’t count and thus doesn’t upset your comfortable view of what constitutes the PC industry.

    The amount of collateral damage this causes is laughable – I think HP, Dell and other PC manufacturers will have issues with you cutting their tablet PCs out of the PC market because they don’t have keyboards, trackpads or mice and eliminating the original PC, the 1984 DOS – based IBM PC from the category because it didn’t have a mouse or trackpad is particularly humorous.

    Hey, even Microsoft defines the iPad as a PC so get over yourself and accept the fact that Apple’s newest PC line has killed the NetBook, is severely denting the laptop and is on track to become the biggest PC manufacturer in the world.

  • D H

    Remember in the days before iPads and iPhones when Windows Mobile devices were called “Pocket PCs”? Where they PCs? How does a “pocket PC” differ from a “smart phone”?

    • http://techpinions.com/about-tech-pinions/steve-wildstrom Steve Wildstrom

      Pocket PCs were not phones. In fact, they generally had no connectivity at all except syncing to a desktop. The Pocket PC was Microsoft’s generally unsuccessful effort to compete with Palm, but it evolved into the modestly successful Windows Mobile.

  • Puggsly

    You need to look deeper as to why things get classified as pcs. Specifically the issue with netbooks. You see a couple years ago you had to ether believe the pc industry was shrinking or that netbooks were pcs. It was decided that netbooks are pcs and now the dilemma. Netbook sales tanked due to the iPad. Thus iPads are in the same class and should be counted as computers. If smart phones get holographic displays and start eating into pc sales. Well. They will become pcs.

    That is how I see it.

  • Paul

    all the points you made are valid and I agree with your assessment that the iPad is not a PC. You left off one important criteria: Flash. Although the iPad’s limitation with flash is political rather than technical, it still can’t run flash.

    • Anonymous

      So as soon as Android tablet makers drop the Flash plugin now that Adobe has killed it, their tablets cease to be PCs?

      *shakes head*

  • http://twitter.com/qka qka

    No less an authority than Steve Ballmer has called tablets PCs.

    If the bald guy says so, that’s good enough for me.

  • http://twitter.com/ericschultheiss Eric Schultheiss

    The first tablets were considered PCs, in fact they were marketed as “Table PCs” and they ran Windows 98 and Windows XP. They were laptops, in a sense, that had swivel screens that could then lay flat and turn the device into a bulky tablet. They had resistive touch screens, and used a battery-powered stylus to operate (when not in “keyboard mode” i.e. “laptop mode”).

    So for OVER 15 YEARS, tablets were considered PCs. And now you’re saying we shouldn’t consider them PCs anymore? What are you smoking, I want some!

  • Dave Everitt

    Why do we have to classify items into specific boxes, seems a very American, and somewhat Germanic trait?

    Is the iPad a computing device and is it personal to the user … so its a Personal Computer. My Smartphone is also personal and enables me to tweet, facebook, find the nearest ATM and allows me to take notes in meetings.

    If we classify a personal computing device as a PC, and its not of the origin of an IBM PC, who cares? .. is it retail, as they have no idea where to put it in the shop (sorry store), well retail is rapidly heading to e-tail and many are now sorting by brand.

    Is it Dell, or HP as they are scared they will be investing in something that nobody wants?

    I think Canalys has a point, but are mistaken in so many ways. Personally, I think that Santayana was right when he said said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (http://www.elementum-evelor.com/). The real question is what does the end user gain as utility from the technology being provided.

    I would suggest that getting hung up on what a thing is classified as is an American trait that comes from their Germanic heritage and its a habit that has had its day. My 3G phone is a Linux based computer that has a phone built in and a 3M pixel camera as well as a GPS and Wifi interface…. OK, its a Samsung Galaxy … if you recall the first Blackberry was “only” an mobile Outlook client (no phone included) .. but it was personal and it computed …

    I would suggest that the wise will look at what the end user is looking for, in the dim and distant past that utility was provided by Lotus 1-2-3, and in time Office. So, who has the application that will address the need of the future and how will it be delivered?

    I think Apple is likely to stuck where Apple has always been, I suspect the IBM clone vendors are hanging on in dear hope the world will stay with them and yet LTE (sometimes called 4G) and hosted services (often now called Cloud or SaaS) is going to make any nonsense of classifying the hardware of very little value.

  • Spike Ennis

    WOW, just wow.
    “We all know the iPad isn’t a computer; it’s a tablet, so why do we all keep pretending? It is fun, I know, even I’m amused when writing this. So what is a PC?

    I believe a PC has all the nine characteristics at the top of the page but with the following conditions:

    display greater than 5″
    physical keyboard
    physical mouse or trackpad
    light enough to be picked up by an average age adult
    open application environment where users can load, side-load without having to jail-break”

    Maybe it needs a physical screen to be sold with the unit …. so the Mac mini would not be a computer since you have to buy the screen separate. ???

    the iPad uses an Apple keyboard thru bluetooth.
    Why do you have to use a mouse? The screen is a trackpad. PS, many laptops have a touch pad and need no mouse.

    Maybe we need to add:
    Must be colored Beige
    must be shaped like a rectangular tower,
    must have a microsoft logo on it somewhere,
    Must be powered by intel

    I say that the iPad is a computer. It computes. It consumes, it communicates, With a keyboard (bluetooth) it is great to type on.

    How about we define journalist.???? Maybe you are not a writer… only a hunt and pecker?? LOL

    Just a thought,

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  • Mbolo360

    I have a Toshiba Thrive… its not as powerful as my Toshiba Win7 laptop but its a PC nonetheless. 5 inch screen… are you serious? I hook my Thrive to my 55 inch HDTV and that kills that noise. Physical keyboard and mouse… ever heard of wireless Bluetooth or USB? Yeah I can use those on my Thrive too. How you are able to load programs is more of a platform issue… and bootloaders are now being offered by some Android tablet manufacturers… ie Asus… or load one online… I was able to load a weather widget I liked that was included with Asus tablets but not available on the Thrive… these rules are so investors that know how to read numbers but know little of technology can invest. They are the ones that are confused… if all you use your PC for is Facebook, email, chat and simple games then adios windows and hello Android or iOS.

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