Editorial: It's Apple's 'post-PC' world -- we're all just living in it

On Wednesday, Apple introduced the world to the iPad 2. A beautiful device, to be sure. Feature packed? You bet. Soon to be selling like hotcakes? Absolutely. But the introduction of an iteration on an already existing product wasn't the most notable piece of the event, nor was the surprise appearance of Steve Jobs. No, Wednesday's event was significant because it introduced the world to Apple's real vision for the foreseeable future, a theme the company has hinted at but never fully expressed. This week, Apple showed everyone where it was headed, challenged competitors on that direction, and made it clear that the company not only has staked a claim in that space, but is defining it.

This week, Apple stepped into the "post-PC" era of computing -- and there's no looking back, at least not for the folks in Cupertino.

By joining the company's ongoing vision of a "different" kind of computing with a soundbite friendly piece of marketing-speak, Apple has changed the rules of the game, and made the competition's efforts not just an uphill battle, but -- at least in the eyes of Steve Jobs and co. -- essentially moot. But what exactly is the "post-PC" world? And why is it significant? Let me explain.

In this new world, Apple no longer has to compete on specs and features, nor does it want to. There is no Mac vs. PC here -- only "the future" versus "the past." It won't be a debate about displays, memory, wireless options -- it will be a debate about the quality of the experience. Apple is not just eschewing the spec conversation in favor of a different conversation -- it's rendering those former conversations useless. It would be like trying to compare a race car to a deeply satisfying book. In a post-PC world, the experience of the product is central and significant above all else. It's not the RAM or CPU speed, screen resolution or number of ports which dictate whether a product is valuable; it becomes purely about the experience of using the device. What that means is that while Motorola and Verizon will spend millions of dollars advertising the Xoom's 4G upgrade options, CPU speed, and high-resolution cameras, Apple need only delight consumers and tell them that specs and and speed are the domain of a dinosaur called the PC. Apple isn't claiming victory in the Space Race -- it's ceding space to the competition.

But guess who gets Earth all to itself? Apple's not saying that it beats other tablets on the market. It's saying "we do one thing, and these guys do something else altogether." They're not competition -- they're not even playing the same game!

That's not to say Apple has given up on PCs, and in fact, the company's laptop sales are consistently exceeding expectations. But take a look at what's creeping around the corner. There's Lion, with its iOS-like interface, its simplified experience. If Apple has its way, and if the sales of its mobile devices carry on in the manner they have up until now, a post-PC outlook will even fit devices that look alarmingly like... PCs.

But right now -- in the tablet space at least -- the problem for Motorola, Samsung, HP, RIM, and anyone else who is challenging Apple becomes infinitely more difficult. Almost any company could put together a more powerful or spec-heavy tablet, but all the horsepower in the world can't help you if you don't find a way to delight the average consumer. Those other tablet makers may have superior hardware (and in the case of the Xoom, some superior software as well), but without that key component of sheer delight, the road for them is long and hard. HP is getting close by touting features like Touch-to-Share, but against experiences like the new GarageBand for iOS and the 65,000 apps (and counting) that currently exist, it's hard to see a clear path to sizable competition. That goes for Google and RIM as well.

What Apple has done by introducing its "post-PC" language into the vernacular is almost more a game of semantics. Now when Motorola boasts the brain-crushing, bone-splitting power of the Xoom, the company could easily come off like the guy who buys the red Ferrari because he has something to prove.

Apple isn't just challenging perceptions of the PC -- they're saying that the age of the PC is over (at least for most people). The company is forcing consumers to ask if they even still want or need something called a PC (while of course making sure to point out that the competition is playing the same old game). And really, that's all part of the plan. Apple is in the process of making the iPad the de-facto standard for what the next stage of computing looks like, from the look and feel to the kind of software and experiences you have on the device. Apple doesn't just want to own the market -- it wants to own the idea of the market. We've seen this act before, and we know how it ends.

There was a time before the iPod too, when companies like HP, Samsung, and even Microsoft fought against Apple for the hearts and minds of the consumer -- but I'll be damned if anyone can remember it.