Are we in the Post-PC era?

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably been buried in iPad news by now. But with the announcement of the new iPad came the return to talks of a “post-pc era”. For anyone who doesn’t already know, the post-pc era is supposed to mark the end of a time when the traditional desktop/laptop computing experience is usurped by the tablet and smartphone. There is a bit of truth to this, but for the most part it’s just hyperbole from marketers trying to get us hooked on the next thing and reporters looking for clicks.

The undeniable truth of the matter is that sales for smartphones and tablets (at least apple tablets) are where we’re seeing the majority of growth. At the iPad announcement Tim Cook announced that iPad sales had exceeded laptop sales from a slew of high-profile manufacturers including Acer and Lenovo. I’m not debating the truth of that statement but I will contest the impact of it. Apple and a good percentage of the tech news circuit would have you believe that this means people are giving up their computers en masse and jumping to the iPad. That’s just not true. Tablet and computers from day one have had two very separate uses and appeals. A tablet shows its strengths with it’s simpler and more intuitive design and beautifully laid out apps, web browsing, games and media in genera where a computer would shine with higher-end media and production. I’m not going to sit down on a tablet and type an essay or even edit more than a few pictures any time soon, it’s just not practical. Some people might make a case for a dock but then how is that any different/better from using a laptop? 

There are two reasons why smartphones and tablets outsell tradition computers and neither of them have anything to do with replacing the latter. The first reason is the personality of tablets and phones. In an average famiily there is probably a main desktop for shared use and maybe a laptop or two for the parents.  You can have multiple accounts and aside from timeshares, there usually isn’t a problem with sharing a computer. Tablets and phones are a completely different story though. I wouldn’t let anyone use my phone for an extended period of time, it’s just too personal. A tablet i’d be a little more open to sharing but I still wouldn’t co-own with anyone. Because of this reason most families have phones for every member and tablets are following that same trend.

The second reason is getting closer to the media push. Tablets and phones don’t last long. I’ve had my Macbook pro for nearly two years now and it’s still as sleek, fast and capable as when I first got it (even more so but I’ll come back to that later). If all goes well I won’t have any good reason to replace it for another two years, just try keeping a tablet/phone for that long. I got my first smartphone last summer (1 GHz, dual core, 4 inch screen, 5mp camera… the average high-end smartphone at the time) and it’s already feeling dated. Motorola doesn’t feel like updating to the latest OS and there’s nothing I can do about it plus new apps are already running slower than they should. I had an iPad 1st gen and it was experiencing the same age problems along with just looking like garbage compared to the latest slab. This shift from a 4-5 year replacement time to a 1-2 year means that every person who buys in to a tablet counts for twice the sales at least. And when yo consider that every member of the family upgrades their phone once every other year, that’s about 8+  phone purchased for every laptop renewal period. Even if everyone keeps their traditional computers and only a quarter of those people have tablets, tablet sales are still going to reflect a large percentage of the market. 

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So why the push for the “post-pc” era? Mostly the second reason. The computer market is competitive that HP (the world’s largest PC maker) was considering selling its PC division. The overly aggressive PC market pushes profit margins to their thinnest. Apple is the only manufacturer with high returns per computer (Sony is close but they don’t move nearly as many computers). Tablets have much higher margins and because of the constant changes in processors they are replaced at a much higher rate.

And there are some hidden costs to tablets too. If anyone tries to make the PC more “curated” as the tablet is, the masses would throw a fit but tablets started off as a walled garden and people came to accept and even prefer that experience from the very beginning. This means that any media going through the tablet generates revenue for the manufacturer (or Google in Android’s case). Another reason companies want to push tablets is control over hardware. The computer hardware division is highly competitive and cuts profit margins to an extreme. When my computer turned one, I was able to replace the hard drive with a much faster one and double the ram to 8 gigs for south of $150 so my computer still runs faster than the majority of newer ones. When my iPad turned one I just found myself frustrated with all the apps I couldn’t run and I had no choice but to buy a completely new one. Add on top of that the fact that we somehow justify the price markup for memory on a tablet.16 extra gigs shouldn’t cost more than $20 but we pay $100 dollars for it and we’re even willing to pay $300 extra for a whopping 48 gigs more (16-64)! One of the highest-end Solid State Drives on the market (Intel’s) cost under $150 for 120 gigs… that’s less than half the price for more than double the capacity and performance! 

So when you hear talk about the “post-pc” era and all the hyperbole surrounding it, take it with a grain of salt. Companies have a vested interest in getting everyone on tablets and reporters have a vested interest in writing on whatever is new and controversial. People still prefer to watch movies, play games and do work on computers and they’re not leaving any time soon. 

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