Missing the Point: The “Post-PC Era”

With the surge in tablet and smartphone sales, we have been told that we’re in the “Post-PC Era.” On its face that sounds reasonable, given the iPads, Kindles, and Nexus tablets that most assuredly are cutting into the sales of traditional desktop and notebook PC’s.  PC sales are flat to trending down at the end of 2012, while tablet sales are rising and projected to surpass laptops in 2013.   So, clearly the days of the traditional PC are numbered.

But the problem is that in describing the near-future in terms of what it  ISN’T about — traditional PC’s — doesn’t tell us what the future IS about. But things are getting clearer.

For example, consider today’s smartphone. This is a (mostly) pocketable device that you can make voice phone calls on over cellular networks — only it’s smart, right? These days the voice call function among the least used on the device. As we all know, the smartphone is about apps, and your smartphone can be forgiven for dropping voice calls — as long as it runs Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja.  Smartphone?  Maybe it would be better to call it a Post-Phone mobile device.

Of course, if you’re one of those still obsessed with voice calls, you can easily make a call using Skype or Google Voice (but why not add video why you’re at it?) — using your data connection rather than the traditional cellular voice network.

All of which actually matters very little, since the primary way of sending messages over your smartphone is via text messaging. If you’ve got a half-decent smartphone, you can even dictate your message via voice recognition. No apologies needed, but the reality is that most of us would rather dictate a text message to our phones than simply placing a call and having a conversation. I’m not judging, but more than anything else this does challenge the idea that this device should be called a “phone”, smart- or otherwise.

Sometime in the next year or two this evolution will be complete as even the voice calls are routed over the — LTE — data network rather than the existing cellular voice network. Of course, the telecomm companies for years have been using IP — the Internet Protocol — for routing your calls once they leave the local phone circuit. So it is less of a technology revolution than just common sense to kill a separate “voice network.” So, objectively, we are in the “Post-phone Era” today.

And what about TV? In 2009, the US switched from analog to digital TV standards, with High Definition TV and a surge in flat screen TV sales. Not only did the TV’s start to LOOK more like flat screen computer monitors, but computer monitors started to become more like TV’s. The analog VGA video connections for computers gave way to first Digital Video Interface (DVI) connectors. But with a year or two, computer monitors moved to widescreen formats and the digital HDMI connectors used for TV’s started popping up on computer monitors — and on laptop computers. Were these “Post-TV era” TV’s? And did the “Post-PC Era” actually start a bit earlier than the iPad?

At the middle of the last decade there was a lot of talk about “digital convergence,” a perfectly unintelligible buzzword at the time that annoyed more than enlightened. But more than the “Post-Anything” Era, “digital convergence” was the more accurate description of the devices we’ve come to depend on since then.

We’re now seeing the ultimate realization of this phenomenon. The current best quality of consumer video on TV or BluRay disks is 1920×1080 pixel resolution — what’s known as 1080p. In the past year the iPad and other 10″ tablets have exceeded that 1080p resolution: there are more pixels (dots) forming the images on your 9.7″ iPad than on your 55″ HDTV in the living room. Newer “smartphones” have grown from the iPhone’s original 3.5″ screen to 5″ or even 5.5″ inches — and many 2013 models feature the same 1080p resolution as your living room TV. Today, my laptop and my two year old my Motorola Atrix smartphone feature HDMI-out connectors that allowsme to plug my laptop or phone directly into my HDTV.

The reality isn’t “Post-PC” or “Post-Phone” — it’s the logic and convenience of the use of the same technology standards by many different devices. At the same time, the devices themselves have changed. Look only as far as Microsoft’s touch-friendly Windows 8 and Surface tablet-with-a-keyboard cover to see the convergence trend transforming the devices themselves.

Phrases like “Post-PC Era” are intended to emphasize the transitions underway. But the most frequent mistake in predicting the future is trying to understand it through the past.

The natural assumption when hearing “post PC” is that PC somehow is “lost” the battle for tech supremacy, but think again. Your analog TV became digital, just like the PC. Your cellphone got IP networking, a data connection, a high resolution screen — and the computing power and memory of a PC.  And that tablet that’s the Apple of everyone’s eye, there’s a reason for those keyboard covers that snap on it — and feels a lot like a laptop.

But the PC! Did it really lose the battle only to win the tech war?  Not so much.  In reality more people spend more time consuming information and entertaining themselves than creating or working with a computer. In the end, if want to watch a video or play a casual game on a plane, bus, or even in the living room, a tablet is more compact and quicker to start than a laptop computer.

But it would be just as big of a mistake to say that in five to ten years PC’s will have disappeared and everything we’ll be watching or playing will be on a tablet. High bandwidth wireless, data in the cloud and compatible screens everywhere, mean tomorrow’s devices may not be anything like what you use today.  Perhaps today’s PC’s and tablets will disappear into tomorrow’s “smartphones” — or even a tiny USB flash drive-like device will be all we need to securely access our data and programs stored in the cloud on virtually any screen we encounter.  The device will mostly stored your identity and credentials to access your files and programs whether at home, on an airplane seatback, or at the coffee shop.

The reality is that as our ownership of multiple devices increases, the movement of data to the cloud has already become an compelling convenience.  This is obvious to those who already use cloud music services, services such as iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox or Evernote across multiple devices.  And once this adoption is universal, the next step is for the programs (applications) to be there, too.  Google Docs, or Microsoft’s Office 365 are only the most visible examples of applications that live in the Cloud and not on your local hard drive.

With both data and applications in the Cloud, there’s a lot less for the post-PC, post-smartphone, and post-tablet devices to do.  Mainly these devices will be about establishing identity for access, data input, routing, and display.  For these tasks, the current models of computing devices will be overkill.

With most everything happening in the Cloud, you won’t need to upgrade full desktops, laptops, and phones on 2-3 year basis.  But you can bet that the ACCESS to this Brave New Cloud won’t come cheaply.  And that will be the true revolution in the “Post-PC Era.”

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