We Are Entering the True Era of Personal Computing

Remember that old HP campaign “The computer is personal again?”  I remember seeing that campaign and thinking to myself, when did the computer become un-personal? I’ve been cogitating on this term “personal computer” and in light of the recent debate of whether the iPad is a PC, I have come to some personal conclusions on this topic.

I would also like to preface this by saying that I agree with how Tim Cook illustrated what Post PC meant. He explained how Post PC means the PC is no longer the center. That is true. However, we are using this term “post pc” only because a desktop or notebook form factor is what has been associated with “PC.” We should not forget that the term PC literally means personal computer. So my overarching point is that we are actually in what is truly the PC (personal computing) era. My logic is as follows.

First lets look at some computing history.   To do that I am going to look at the evolution of personal computing by calling out specific “eras” of computing.   The first era was the birth of computing. During this era computing was in its infancy. Things like the transistor, then the microprocessor were invented which paved the way for computing.   During the first stage of computing, computers were quite large and normally filled a room mostly and in the form of mainframes then eventually minis.   Many visionaries dreamed of making these devices smaller so people could bring them into their homes and own their own computer.   This vision paved the way for desktop computing. 

Desktop Computing

This is the second era of computing.  What most during this time would consider the personal computer I will call a desktop computer.   The term personal came from the idea that each “person” would have one.  When computers were largely mainframes or minis they were too big for each person to own.   Bill Gates famously said “some day there will be computer on every desk.”   This was the result of the next evolution of computing as computers become smaller and were able to now fit on desks as well as become more affordable.  Of course these devices could become personal in the sense that a person owned them and could personalize them to a degree.  But more personal computers were still ahead. 

Portable Computing

The next era was the era of portable computing.   This was the era of notebooks.   Some call this mobile computing but my argument is that notebooks were really more portable computers than they were mobile.   Meaning you could move them more easily than a desktop but you still sat down and were stationary using the device at arms length (generally) to type.  My point is you weren’t actually doing computing while being mobile–you were still stationary.    

Notebooks certainly took us one step closer to personal computing because they added an element of portability. They tended to travel with a select person who largely customized the notebook thus making it more personal to that individual.   I would argue that the notebook is actually the first truly personal computer and birthed personal computing.   

Now enter smart phones and tablets.   The Merriam-Webster definition of a computer is:

“a programmable usually electronic device that can store, retrieve, and process data.”

Another definition I found in the dictionary says:

“An electronic device for storing and processing data, typically in binary form, according to instructions given to it in a variable program.” 

So my first question is how is a tablet and smart phone not considered a computer?  I also highly customize my smart phone and tablet for my own tastes and likings via software, personal data storage, access to media, and take them with me everywhere I go.   So how exactly how are they not also personal?  Thus one would have to logically conclude that smart phones and tablets are in fact personal computers on which computing tasks take place.  

What we need to realize in this evolution of personal computing is that devices like smart phones and tablets represent a form factor evolution of computing similarly to the way the desktop form factor evolved to the notebook form factor.   This evolution led to portable personal computing and it made computing possible in places that were before impossible with a desktop–like at Starbucks.  The evolution of the personal computer form factor from notebook to tablet and smart phone represents the evolution to truly mobile personal computing.   Again bringing computing to places not before possible or were before inconvenient–like the couch, bed, walking down the street, etc.  

The Era of Mobile Personal Computers

My point earlier was that notebooks were more portable than they were mobile due to the form factor of a notebook still requiring its user to be stationary, with the device resting on a surface being used at arms length.   Devices like tablets and smart phones change this computing paradigm.  We can hold these devices in our hands and use them, we can move around while using them, we can use them in a range of places and situations where a desktop or notebook could never be used.   Places like point of sale retail, by waiters, or car salesman, while running through the woods, while hunting, while boating, at the park, at the beach, etc.   

The tablet and smart phone form factor represent what I believe are the best form factors for truly mobile personal computing.   Thus they are simply form factor evolutions in personal computing not something other than a personal computer.  

Can they replace other form factors?

The answer is no; tablets in particular are not replacing PCs, at least not in the foreseeable future.   Rather what is happening is tasks or jobs are being replaced.  Things that once were done primarily on the notebook or desktop form factor are now being done largely on devices like tablets and other form factors. In essence the best way to think about this is that time is shifting from notebooks or desktops to tablets and smart phones

Prior to tablets, for example, the notebook owned the bulk of a consumers time when it came to computing tasks like searching the web, consuming media, checking email, etc.  Now with tablets, time has been shifted to the tablet or smart phone where the form factor is more convenient for tasks like browsing the web, checking email, etc, in many situations.   

Each form factor has a role to play.  Based on the list of computing tasks consumers perform, the form factors play a role in making those jobs easier to accomplish.    In this environment what happens is that consumers spread their time across a number of form factors to accomplish computing holistically.  

Before one “personal computer” monopolized consumers time.  Now time is shared between computing devices in the ecosystem in order to accomplish a wider range of computing tasks.  Things that were not possible, or were harder to accomplish with previous form factors become possible with new computing form factor evolutions that stick in the market.

Rather than look at tablets and smart phones as separate from PCs it would be more helpful to look at them within the larger personal computing ecosystem.  If we did this then we would not be arguing about whether the “death of the PC” is imminent or the degree at which PC sales are slowing.   Instead we would be talking about the growth of the PC industry as well as the expansion of personal computing into new form factors, use cases, tasks, etc.

What we need to let go of is not the idea that these devices are not personal computers. What we need to let go of is an archaic and out of date definition, assumption, and stereotype of the term PC.
We are not really in the post PC era.  We are in the post notebook form factor era. We are in the post traditional definition of a PC era.    We are actually just entering the era of truly personal computing.    If Bill Gates vision of long ago was that every desk would have a computer then I offer up this: in this new era, every pocket will have a personal computer.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

64 thoughts on “We Are Entering the True Era of Personal Computing”

  1. What I find interesting is that the new wave of moblie devices have ushered the return of the vertical model (Apple, Commodore, Atari, etc,.) from the 80’s vs. the horizontal model (Windows PC) model of the 90’s. Consumers are now looking for an eco-system instead of a platform where everything is slapped together.

    Consider the iPod, iPod-Touch, iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air. No one is beating Apple on price/features/performance because unlike a desktop/laptop PC you can’t just slap together a moblie device from off the shelf parts, if weight and size are to be kept to a minimum. In this environment having less is more, few models like Apple, creates better volumes of manufacturing efficiency, thus undermining the Dell manufacturing model of the 1990’s.

    Then security must be taken into account. Apple’s curated eco-system of Apps and services provides a safe and secure way for consumers to buy and use services and apps. After two decades of Windows PC viruses and complexity consumers are ready to move on.

    In the end, devices like the iPhone and iPad do 90% of what consumers want out of their PCs and as that time shifts away from PCs so will sales. There will still be PCs but they will be centered around more complex (heavy lifting) task instead of all day use, much like a truck.

    The iPad is a PC. Nothing can change that now. Apple has changed the world.

    1. As I see it, in order to be a personal computer, a device first has to be a general-purpose computer. Like a video game console, an iPad is not a general-purpose computer because there are purposes that Apple has purposely excluded. For example, on an Android tablet with a keyboard, programming is doable (although allegedly painful) using AIDE software from the Google Play Store. On an iPad with a keyboard, it’s not possible because of the code signing scheme that ensures Apple a revenue stream of $649 (for a Mac) plus $99 per year (for a certificate) from each iOS application developer. An iOS device isn’t personal to the owner because the owner doesn’t control it; Apple does.

      As for “safe and secure”, there are other ways to that do not rely on one curator whose wishes override those of a device’s owner. One approach adopted by Android OS is to segregate applications’ private sandboxes and require application packages to declare at install time what sensitive actions the application may perform. The Bitfrost sandbox layer of the OLPC Sugar operating environment operates on similar principles.

      As for “90% of what consumers want”, each user will have a different 10% need that the iOS ecosystem cannot meet, and thus each user will still need a general-purpose computer of some sort.

  2. The Personal Computer (PC) Industry does not want smart phones and tables to be grouped into the PC category because then Apple would dominate all PC sales. I do believe that smart phones and tablets are computers.
    Personal Computer: Desktop, Laptop, Tablet, Pocket and someday Micro embedded computers.

    1. That is true, I am working on a data compilation chart that includes smart phones as PC to illustrate Apple’s dominance as the number one PC vendor. Even if people largely disagree with me it will make for an interesting graphic.

      1. Ben, If you make that graphic, make sure to do two… one for the OS, and one for the manufacturers… I’d imagine that given the dominance of Android, you might see that Apple really still doesn’t have a dominance (but they don’t really need to be dominant since their margins are so high)

  3. You’re thinking outside the box again, Ben.

    Now I have a healthier understanding about the progression of the personal computer. I have been following the herd in the topic on the demise of the pc, the inevitability that the iPad would usurps the computer. Of course the iPad is a pc. I knew that just as I new my old Palm TX was a personal computer and my mobile phone is a computer. Yet, I was seeing the demise of the pc happening before my eyes and thinking the iPad was somehow the successor rather than another transition in evolution.

    Thinking outside the box is difficult. It is similar to the obvious-factor Apple is accused of when others copy it saying what Apple has done is so obvious, anybody can do it. It is obvious once someone has pointed it out, but it takes that first step to become obvious. Such obvious understandings are akin to eureka moments just as the application of warming hands by rubbing led to the advent of the personal fire; yup, so obvious after some hairy nut did it first.

    The PC is dead. Long live the PC!

      1. Hey Mike, I am looking into this as we speak. I made a slight change to discuss so that i could put the posting guidelines at the bottom so people knew to be respectful in their comments. I will keep posted. Thanks for bringing it up.

        1. Just got your email as well. I am just going to now try posting again and see if disqus works. edit- Pic shows this time. My 2 previous posts use my name but weren’t logged in through disqus so probably not linked with my posts. Cheers.

  4. Interesting observations Ben… I’ve been preaching to all that the iPhone (and all other smartphones) are computers that have the added ability of making phone calls, *not* phones that can do “other stuff”…

  5. I can do that I have all that data as well. It will make for an interesting set of graphics. Android is interesting but its really only limited to smart phones right now in terms of huge volume. I am tracking Android pretty closely and I am actually anticipating some slowing if not slight decline in Android market share over the next few years. There are a ton of reasons why, I have written about many.

    But yes Android has a good share of the smart phone market but interestingly that is because it is spread out between many vendors. Apple is able to accomplish large hardware and OS share with only their hardware which is one of the most impressive things to observe on the data.

    In essence Android and Windowsxxx requires an army of hardware partners just to compete with Apple.

  6. I also agree with your assessment of the shifting role of personal computing devices. As the tablet and phone form factor gain prominence in normal computing activities, desktop form factors can move to a new role as personal media servers to host the media and data files that users will want to access. The storage capacities of the tablet and phone form factors are still too small to hold the amount of data likely to be consumed (music, movies, television, pictures, apps).

    I also see a shift in the role of cloud computing. Right now there is a preponderance of marketing large monolithic cloud services that host all of a user’s data so that it can be accessed instantly from wherever the user is. There are many advantages to this type of cloud service, but do I really want Google to own my data? With a personal media server (i.e. the desktop PC) I can host my own personal cloud, retain ownership and management of my data, and still be able to access it from anywhere. This will ultimately be an extension to the Mobile computing era.


  7. There are three reasons why I continue to carry a 10″ notebook instead of a tablet. First, as an experienced PC user, I prefer to have control over my own device. See my reply to Studentrights.

    Second, you mention the tablet form factor being more convenient for “checking e-mail”. I guess there’s a difference between your use case and mine. Perhaps the overwhelming majority of your e-mail is mailing lists, but to me, “checking e-mail” includes replying, and that’s most efficiently done with a keyboard. Adding a keyboard to a tablet involves transforming it into the notebook shape, so why not just buy a less expensive device that is a notebook to begin with?

    Finally, mobile access to the Internet still costs hundreds of dollars per year in addition to what someone already pays for Internet at home. People with tight budgets might not be able to fit that. Instead, they rely on applications capable of an offline work flow that shows some similarities to that of the dial-up era: downloading information while connected to the Internet through Wi-Fi, doing the work while mobile, and uploading the changes the next time the user connects to the Internet. For example, when checking e-mail, one might download messages, go offline, read them, compose replies, and put the replies in an outbox to send once online. Applications for a traditional PC historically have better support for working offline than web applications, which until HTML5 have had no way to save large amounts of data for later synchronization, or mobile applications, many of whose authors appear to assume that anyone rich enough to own a mobile device is rich enough to subscribe to cellular Internet access.

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