The Stochastic Game
Ramblings of General Geekery

The post-PC era

You can see this kind of headline all over the web these days, especially with Apple fanboy tech bloggers: the PC is dead, all hail tablets and smartphones. The argument is also made for video games consoles, who are supposedly on the way out to be replaced by, guess what, tablets and smartphones. Even Jeff Atwood is getting on the bandwagon.

I don’t disagree with the facts here: most indicators we have on the market right now show that, indeed, desktop and laptop computers have declining sales while mobile products have an ever-accelerating growth.

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Some tech bloggers, however, are a bit too quick to equate opposing trends with replacement – in reality, people still own PCs and Macs, but complement them with mobile devices. As far as I know, there’s no evidence that anybody is actually getting rid of their laptops and desktop computers after buying an iPad… yet.

Main device of choice

Interestingly enough, Jeff Atwood recently posted an article about the ASUS Zenbook Prime (which, incidentally, is the laptop I bought my wife) as being “the last laptop he may ever buy”. He argued that, more often than not, he would choose a tablet or smartphone when deciding what device to use or take with him, leaving the laptop behind (which sounds dubious from a guy who must spend most of his time in Visual Studio, but whatever).

This, indeed, points at actual replacement. But look at the way he supposedly makes his decision:

  • Want 10 hours of real world battery life?
  • Want to start doing stuff immediately?
  • Want the smallest most portable device you can get away with?
  • Want to be always connected to the Internet?
  • Want easy access?

Those are never the questions I have in mind when deciding what to put in my backpack, or what to take with me around the house. Those are just specs. Some are laughable (seriously, you can’t wait 2 seconds for the laptop to resume from sleep?), and some are kind of obvious (well yes, I won’t take anything too bulky or impractical on the bus, but that’s as applicable to a laptop as it is to a large book, my drawing equipment, or my bass guitar, which I would otherwise very like to take with me always), but they’re all besides the point.

Instead, there’s only one question I ask myself: what do I want to do? And then just take what lets me do exactly that, given the environment in which I intend to do it.

For me, this is almost always the laptop – and I’m not the only one. Some of it is my own personal tastes and workflows (the need for a real keyboard, a big enough screen, a connection to my file server), some of it is because of the software I need to run (Lightroom, Visual Studio or any other development environment, Mercurial or Git, Pro Tools), and some of it is the necessities of the task at hand (using a Wacom tablet or Cintiq, using a high-speed audio interface with several music instruments and microphones plugged-in). All of this basically prevents me from using a tablet even if I wanted (which I don’t really).

What goes in the bag?

The only task for which I consistently pick the tablet is consuming content, like catching up with my “to read/to watch” list, going through social networks and feeds, and enjoying comicbooks.

It’s also the only device I take with me to bed or when leaving the house. Is that a shortcoming of laptops then? Absolutely not. I never planned to write code or tag photos or record music in a crowded subway before, and that hasn’t changed. What I would plan to do is read something, and that’s why I always carried a couple books with me all the time.

Now I just carry one small tablet. It’s not because it’s small or because it has better battery life or because it turns on right away. I have it because it’s the best digital replacement for books (I don’t carry a Kindle or other e-book reader because I tend to read a lot of comics or other illustrated books like RPG books).

For me, the tablet is a definitive improvement (less physical books cluttering the house, lighter and smaller backpack, more pleasant reading experience), but it has barely replaced anything I do on the laptop. The only thing it did replace is Google Reader/Facebook/Twitter in a browser.

I also hear a lot of people saying a phone or tablet is better for quickly checking emails, or looking up something on the web, or whatever. Although I did use my mobile devices for that at the beginning, I found that it was not that much of an improvement. This is because:

  • I stopped compulsively checking my emails and notifications through the day. Now I’m only doing that a few times a day, which means that when I do I will probably have several things to delete/archive/reply to, and that’s just quicker to do on the laptop (you do use keyboard shortcuts, do you?).

  • I have a lot of productivity shortcuts set up on my system. I can look something up on a map or on Wikipedia or IMDB or whatever in less time on the laptop than on my iPad. I know, I actually tested that.

  • One of the exceptions is looking up recipes. My wife got me a fridge stand for the iPad for when I’m cooking. It’s also easier to clean grease marks on a screen than on a keyboard. But, again, that didn’t replace using a laptop: before I would have a recipe book open on the counter.

The post-PC era

Now, we can try to imagine how this is going to change in the next few years. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point, your phone could be paired with an external display, on top of a mouse and keyboard, and get into a mode where it’s running a full-fledged (or legacy) OS that can run more complex applications. In the future, your phone could very well be your wallet, your identity, and your one and only computer, with some storage and possibly computing power extending to the cloud.

Is that when the PC will effectively be dead? No. That’s just when your phone will have evolved into your PC. That’s what Jeff Atwood really hints at:

Our phones are now so damn fast and capable as personal computers that I’m starting to wonder why I don’t just use the thing I always have in my pocket as my “laptop”, plugging it into a keyboard and display as necessary.

The “post-PC” era is really about moving past some existing form factors and into new ones. But if you could plug your phone into a keyboard and display to run Visual Studio or Lightroom or whatever, what do you really have? Well: a very small desktop computer.

We went from cabinet-sized PC to desktop PC to smaller PCs to, well, phone-sized PCs (yes, they already exist), but only with smartphones and tablets did the industry embrace new UI designs and input methods. And the danger, here (apart from the attached problems of vertically integrated services and other monopolies), is to think it’s a panacea.

I’m looking forward to see how it will continue changing the market, but meanwhile I’ll keep using my laptop. You know, the one that keeps getting lighter and thinner while gaining multi-touch trackpad capabilities. Thanks a lot for that, by the way.