Personal Computers: Defined by Possibilities

on December 13, 2013

There continues to be a great deal of mis-understanding within the discussion of the PC vs. the tablet. It is easy to say that no one wants a PC and everyone wants a tablet. The reality is that this is only partially true. But more importantly it does not tell the whole story of what is actually happening in the US marketplace and abroad. But for this article I want to focus on how we define a PC.

The biggest challenge facing the tablet narrative today is in its definition. I can show you charts and data of what is happening in the ‘tablet’ category until you are tired of staring at them. All those charts do is tell you that we are shipping–and will be shipping–many hundreds of millions of pieces of glass between 7-10 inches for years to come. It does not tell you what people are doing with these pieces of glass in the market place. More importantly, it does not inform us as to whether many of these pieces of glass should even be compared to PCs in the narrative as they so often are.

Which brings me to my point on how we should define and classify tablets in the PC narrative. A computing device should be defined by its possibilities. Even though someone may buy a notebook and only use it for games, videos, social media, etc., we will count it as a PC because of the possibilities of computing it enables. Said consumers may not be using it to do what many consider “personal computing” tasks but the point remains that said consumer CAN do more at any point they choose using the very device they purchased. This point is not true of all tablets being lumped together in the grand tablet category. In fact, I’d say that there are only a few tablets in the market today that should enter the conversation of personal computing possibilities.

This is why myself, and many others in the industry, are so adamant about the point of the PC and the role it plays in the future of computing. Where I may differ with other analysts is on how we define a PC or what we consider ‘real work.’ We agree we want to put devices in consumer’s hands that bring them the potential of computing, not limit their computing potential. The iPad’s limitation is not that it doesn’t have a keyboard and believing so misses the point. However, the Surface’s (and many products being designed like it) limitation is its necessity of a physical keyboard. ((I have to thank Harry Marks for this point.)) [pullquote]The best way to think about many of the tablets being sold today are as accessories to PCs.[/pullquote]

Tablets that are running a smartphone processor, outdated OS, and can only be used to watch movies are not PCs. Tablets stuck on walls at retail are not PCs. Even some tablets that are tied directly to media and commerce services but can also check email and do minor modifications to word docs, etc., are not PCs. The best way to think about many of the tablets being sold today are as accessories to PCs.

That brings me to the iPad Air. This product signifies in my mind a blank slate of possibilities for personal computing. The iPad is truly a blank slate of opportunities for the future of computing. In fact, it is not by accident that this image is used in Apple’s marketing of the iPad Air and that the iPad Air is metaphorically being compared to a pencil.


If you saw this ad and just thought the pencil was there to show the scale of the iPad in terms of size you missed the big picture of this ad. The pencil, or any writing utensil, is all about possibilities. Before computers, typewriters, printing press and other technological innovations the pen and pencil were for centuries the key innovation for many societies which helped them progress. And so the iPad Air commercial ends:

and we can’t wait to see where you’ll take it next.

This statement is not about location it is about innovation. How will people use this unique computing form factor and create the future? Because that is the reality of what is going to happen. The next billion computing consumers are going to be touch computing literate not keyboard and mouse computing literate. The iPad has fundamentally altered the landscape for personal computing to one that brings more attainable possibilities of computing to the mass market. We will look back in 20 years and fully realize how central the iPad has been to the history of computing.