First, there was the iPod. Then came the iPhone. And finally, the poster child of the "post-PC" era: the iPad. What wasn't necessarily obvious when Steve Jobs helped popularize the term in 2007, is that eventually the barriers between all of these specialized, single-purpose gadgets -- the PC included -- would break down. The stalwart personal computer would still have a role to play in this world, but it would be greatly diminished.
The concept of the post-PC era dates back to 1999 when M.I.T. Senior Research Scientist David D. Clark first coined the term. At the time, the notion of a world powered by portable, single-task devices seemed very, very far away. Palm Pilots and brick-shaped Nokia cellphones were then considered to be cutting edge. There were no smartphones -- a BlackBerry in 1999 was simply a two-way pager.
Long before Apple, Samsung or ASUS actually made successful tablets that broke through to the mainstream, HP was experimenting with the now familiar form factor. The company's TC1100 (pictured here) was a simple slate with a detachable keyboard. In 2003, it was a unique, if slightly awkward design. These days Tim Cook relies on a very similar setup (i.e., an iPad with keyboard) to run Apple nearly every day.
Image: Lozère / Wikimedia
It was the iPod that heralded the coming of the post-PC era. It was the first of many single-task devices that redefined what we expect from our gadgets. But its glory was shortlived as, soon enough, Apple began folding its functionality into the smartphone. And thus, the era of convergence got under way.
When people talk about the post-PC era, generally their timeline starts with the iPhone. Apple marketed it as the first smartphone to put the full power of the internet in your pocket. Before its debut, browsing the internet on a phone was an impractical and painful experience. In just a few short years, however, and in no small part thanks to Apple, it would become the backbone of the mobile computing experience.
Of course others, including Microsoft and Samsung, saw the coming mobile revolution. Samsung's Q1 was an early (and misguided) attempt to build a small computer with a touchscreen for staying productive on the go. The company's key mistake here was the focus on productivity and not media consumption. Successful tablets that came after focused more on media and casual web browsing.
For years now, PC shipments have been in a free fall. Obviously, the market for traditional computers has changed -- it would be silly to deny such a thing. Big PC makers like Dell and HP see that truth reflected in their bottom lines, all the while Apple continues to reap the benefits. But that doesn't mean that the personal computer is dead or has been altogether replaced by some dramatically different gadget. What’s happening instead, is that the distinction between PC and post-PC devices is blurring; consumers are finding room in their lives for PCs, as well as tablets and smartphones.
Laptops and desktops are borrowing inspiration from their tablet brethren. Many Windows machines now feature touchscreens, but more importantly even our more stationary computers a being built around the cloud. Windows 8 (which runs on desktops and tablets) and OS X have a heavy focus on web services. And, of course, there's Google's Chrome OS -- a new type of desktop operating system designed for a time when constant internet connectivity is an everyday reality.
The feature gap between a laptop and tablet has eroded dramatically. A device like the iPad is now so powerful and its productivity tools so robust that Tim Cook says he does 80 percent of his work from one. But that would not have been possible just four years ago, before iOS finally added multitasking (albeit in a limited form). See, what on the surface sounds like anecdotal evidence that the PC is dying, is really proof that the tablet is becoming more PC-like. And while Cook thinks everyone should start ditching their laptop for an iPad, it will probably never happen. Because it's not horsepower that's driving tablet sales, it's price.
As Stephen Baker, an analyst with NPD, points out, the real boom in the tablet market happened during the holiday season of 2012. Why that year? Well, that's when the race to the bottom kicked off in earnest with the debut of the iPad mini, Google's Nexus 7 and the follow up to the Amazon Fire. The latter of which started at a price of $160 -- a far cry from the $500 of Apple's larger slate. The message here is clear: As tablets have become cheaper, they've proliferated, killing off the netbook and the idea of the second PC.
It's no surprise that the netbook was the first real victim of the post-PC boom. These small, under-powered machines weren't very useful for anything beyond casual web browsing. But, thanks to the advent of high resolution multitouch screens, it's now much more comfortable to kick back on the couch with an iPad and catch up on your Buzzfeed lists than it is to balance a cramped mini-laptop on your knees.
Over the last year, sales of both tablets and smartphones have slowed dramatically according to NPD, IDC and Gartner. If you ask Stephen Baker, that's because the market is quickly reaching saturation. Thanks to $200 Android tablets and powerful mid-range handsets, nearly everyone who wants a tablet has been able to buy one. Now, sales of iPads are actually declining and PC sales have finally stopped falling.
Even our most reliable way of distinguishing between PCs and tablets -- form factor -- is disappearing. Devices like Lenovo's aptly-named Yoga are the result of putting laptop design through a blender. The Yoga's strange and surprisingly agile shapes allow it to be used as a tablet, a desktop or even in your lap.
Microsoft's Surface is perhaps the best example of how our definition of "PC" is still stuck in the last decade. It combines a touchscreen and a touch-friendly UI with a detachable keyboard and its own app store. But it's still more than capable of handling spreadsheets and photo editing. So does that make it a tablet? Is it a laptop? We'd argue that it's both.
Especially now that Apple's slowly merging OS X's functionality with iOS, it's harder to draw a line between an iPad with a keyboard and a MacBook Air. 12-inch tablets, like the multi-tasking monster that is Samsung's Galaxy Note Pro 12.2, are becoming common alternatives to 13-inch laptops. By now, it's clear that the original vision of the "post-PC" era simply hasn't come to pass. Instead, manufacturers have set mobile devices and traditional computer on a collision course. Which means that it's time we retire the talking points around the "post-PC" for a buzzword that's way more appropriate: convergence.