Every time someone introduces a flashy new smartphone or tablet, there are the inevitable proclamations that we're living in a post-PC era, or at the very least, that we're barrelling headlong into one. But what exactly does that mean?
Last time I checked, the personal computer – whether it's a desktop or laptop – still plays an incredibly important role. I track my finances on my laptop, edit vacation videos on my desktop and engage in an inordinate amount of communication through both machines. Heck, my entire livelihood involves the PC – as a writer, it's hard to get any work done without connecting a keyboard to one. The same is true in many professions.
So is this post-PC world – one where these old-fashioned "grandpa box" machines are supposedly as obsolete as the mimeograph – a fantasy? Is the term just a marketing slogan created by smartphone and tablet makers to move more units?
Computer makers themselves think so. While there is little doubt that mobile devices are performing functions once possible only on dedicated computing machines, they're not necessarily replacing PCs.
"A single desktop or notebook PC certainly isn't going to fit the need anymore," says David Lord, director of product marketing for business clients at Dell Inc. "But PCs are a reality, certainly from a commercial standpoint and from a consumer's standpoint."
Dell prefers to say "PC-plus" rather than post-PC, believing regular computers aren't going anywhere; their roles are simply being augmented and complemented by mobile devices. The PC's importance isn't necessarily being diminished, so much as the capabilities and prevalence of computing is expanding.
It's not unlike pornography's early adoption role in technology. While home video and the early web saw a preponderance of pornographic content, the audience for more mainstream stuff now far surpasses the appetite for smut. That doesn't mean there isn't a ton of porn online, it's just a relatively small percentage of the overall content market.
Computer makers aren't likely to use the analogy, but they do agree with the sentiment. PCs users may have been the early adopters of computing power, and only now with the explosion of smartphones and tablets can we see what "computing" looks like when it reaches the mainstream.
One reality of this PC-plus world, however, is that the computers themselves have largely become commoditized, which means they're a bad business to be in. Even the most ambitious analyst estimates see sales growing only in the low single digits this year, while profits at many manufacturers are falling off a cliff as prices continue to head downward.
Dell, for one, has traditionally been among the top three PC makers, yet like its cohorts has been feeling the pinch recently. In its most recent quarter, the company saw a 4 per cent decrease in revenue and a hefty 28 per cent drop in profit.
Apple, the leading maker of smartphones and tablets, meanwhile, is riding high. Earlier this year, the company said it had sold 15.4 million iPads in its latest quarter, or more PCs than any single manufacturer. Record quarterly profit announcements from the company have also become the norm.
So when chief executive Tim Cook preaches of a post-PC world, he may not be referring to the actual usefulness of computers versus mobile devices. It's more likely he's talking about the business of computing.
If computer makers aren't stampeding out of that old business – like IBM did eight years ago when it sold its PC division to China's Lenovo – they're certainly making big changes as a result. Dell, for example, is trying to convert into the same sort of integrated information technology services company as Big Blue, which partly explains its $2-billion acquisition last week of California-based Quest Software.
Mr. Lord told me, prior to the company's Quest purchase, Dell wants to be "a solutions provider" that can give corporate clients a complete technology package, rather than just selling them a bunch of computers.
"We can help manage those needs because our capabilities reach all the way back into the data centre and the cloud, all the way through to the device that somebody is holding in their hands," he says.
What about the real post-PC world, the one where desktops and laptops are irrelevant? That won't arrive until two things happen: technology becomes invisible by melting into the environment around us, and it becomes responsive to our needs at the times that we want and need it to.
Futurists say this real post-PC world will still take some time to achieve, but we're within reach of it now.
"We've got the paint, we just need to figure out the perspective so we can create the masterpiece, so to speak," says Bill Buxton, the principal researcher at Microsoft Research. "When we've succeeded, we won't think about it as computing."