Friday, March 09, 2012

It Is Not A Post-PC World

The seemingly endless talk about the "post-PC" era is beginning to drive me up a wall. There is no such thing. It reminds me of the same hollow buzzwords being thrown about in the "cloud" computing framework, even though EVERY idea in the "cloud" has existed, and in many cases been implemented, for a couple of decades. All that was missing was the bandwidth.

Likewise, I think that "post-PC" is a buzz word because the technology might be changing shape, but it is still the same technology. It's the same protocols, the same concepts, all simply shoehorned into a different interface. It sounds like I am belittling the advances made that allowed touch to work, of which there are many, but I am not. I am saying that the advances that were made had less to do with paradigm and more to do with form.

For example: touch and tablets. The iPhone was the first fully-touch interface that worked. Was there something paradigmatically different about it? No! Windows Mobile, Palm, and Symbian all could have done similar, even on older technology; they simply couldn't see past their old interface ideas and look at it from a true UX perspective. It was a problem of perspective, not technology.

Even if the pundits are correct, and the primary form of computing in the future is a tablet of some shape, it is still not the post-PC era. We will still have a dock at home, with a keyboard and most likely a mouse. All that has happened is that the PC has been made modular, which is a form in which we have seen experiments like the Asus Transformer tablet, Motorola's WebTop, and the recent announcement of full Linux running on cell phones. But even there, that is a transition that won't happen for some time since all it will do, at least initially, is increase cost and reduce performance.

My own experiences with consumers also do not support the new post-PC party line. No matter what cell phones or tablets people own, at the center of their technological world is a laptop or desktop. I know only a single person who actually relies on their iPhone for computing. Truly, nothing I have experienced indicates that the post-PC era is post-anything, much less the PC.

So from whence comes this talk of the PC's end? Magazine and internet writers in desperate need of something to cover are assuredly part of the drive. Sales for PC's aren't the shooting star that cell phones and tablets have become, which makes a numbers game especially conducive to this argument. But I don't think that either of those are truly the root of the debate.

I think that it is marketing, plain and simple. Marketing, specifically, from the very companies that conveniently have post-PC products to sell us. Apple started it, Google, Samsung, and Motorola all jumped on board. Now Microsoft is even making similar noise. That marketing people from the various companies both birthed and are now driving the post-PC conversation leads me to believe that they have... ulterior, motives. A recent computer purchasing trip revealed them to me.

My mother's computer recently, how shall I put it, shit the bed. So of course I, being the technowonder that I am, was called upon to make the situation right. After analysis of the nearly-seven-year-old computer, I decided that a new rig1 was needed. I didn't have the time to design and build her a computer, so I hit the interpipes looking for a good one.

The old computer was a Sony Vaio, purchased in 2005 for about $950. It had decent hardware for the time, including a PCI Express slot for an external video card. It served my mom -who was the kind of user to simply install things until the computer stopped- in a more or less problem free manner. If her room hadn't been filled with dust and cigarette smoke, the computer would be 100% usable even now.

Think about that. A computer that is nearly seven years old still does pretty much everything she could ask of it. Compare that to the early 1990's. Imagine buying a computer in 1990, then trying to use that same computer in 1997.

In 1990, you probably would have had a 20Mhz Intel 486 (or AMD/Cyrix if you were a rebel), 4MB of memory, and a 50MB hard drive. The idea of external video processing was a dream, and CD storage of data was something that only the techno-elite had.

In 1997, you would have had a Pentium MMX 200MHz with perhaps as much as 64MB of memory, a 20GB hard drive, CD's and CD burners were becoming common, and Vérité Quake had been out for a year. The two systems were in different leagues. The old system would have been essentially useless.

This was the era that birthed the complaint "I buy a computer and it's immediately obsolete!" Because, at the time, this was somewhat true. Computer hardware remained up-to-date for fleetingly short times. Today, people repeat the complaint, but it doesn't mean the same thing. Today, the complaint means "I just bought this shiny thing and now there's a shinier thing!"

And that is the root of this marketing-fed nonsense known as the post-PC era. A good computer from five years ago will do most of what you could want of it today. That is not sexy. That is not a money-maker. That doesn't drive sales numbers up. Companies don't like it when the turn-over rate on their products is measured in decades. That's why the "planned obsolescence" of the American auto industry included cars that rusted into piles after five years.

Initially, companies didn't need to worry about this. Through the likes of Dell, Gateway, and Compaq, they commoditized  high-turn-over computers below $1,500, then $1,000, then $500, and finally $200. Then, to the various computer companies' horror, even cheap, crap-boxes of computers started lasting for two, three, five years. Meaning that razor thin per-unit profits had to be stretched out over longer periods of time.

For example, the new computer that I bought included an AMD FX-4100, a 1GB Radeon HD 6670, 8GB of memory, and half-a-terabyte of hard drive space. Total cost: $600. That hardware will last, easily, for five years. So I could buy a high-powered computer, capable of doing anything that I want... or I can buy a tablet that is capable of doing little more than surfing the web. And, importantly, it will be obsolete in a very short time: awful for me, but great for the company.

Look at the way companies treat their cell phones, even though they already have a natural life-span of two years. They try their damnedest to get away with not releasing the newest versions of operating systems to them, even when the hardware in the phone could easily power it. They want to make the phone obsolete, because they are desperate to stop smart phones from turning into PC's. Glorious, beautiful, cheap, user-friendly, democratized PC's.2

This reality is being intentionally obfuscated by the companies who want our money, but it is also being unintentionally ignored by users because everyone has a computer. They are simply part of life. But to say that we are moving past this common aspect of everyday life is like saying that we live in a post-refrigerator world because they don't get coverage in the news like they did in 1910.

We are not in the post-PC era. We are in the PC's golden age. It is an age when a powerful computer that will last for years and do everything that a user could ask of it, including games, can be had for the price of an iPad.

This golden age is not sexy. It is not highly profitable. It is not predicated on accelerate obsolescence. In many ways, it is an era in the control of the users and not the companies who are trying to define and control a new zeitgeist. And that is why it's being ignored.


1: Rig is an ultrageek term for a computer. It stems from us geeks usually custom building our own "rigs."
2: Apple doesn't feel the need to do this since they play the "this new thing is shinier than my old thing" market like a fiddle.


troy nowaselski said...

"I just bought this shiny thing and now there's a shinier thing!"

Funny! But sad ...and true. I too have bought shinny for the sake of itself at times.

Great blog btw. I shall return :)

Aaron Martin-Colby said...

@Troy: I think that we all have. There's no shame in admitting it.

And thanks for the kind words.