What Is a PC?

The question that makes up the title of this post was the very same question that led a post written by my colleague Harry roughly a year ago.

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IBM Personal Computer, circa 1981.

The question that makes up the title of this post was the very same question that led a post written by my colleague Harry roughly a year ago.

Harry’s post cited a report by research firm Canalys that said tablets, which Canalys refers to as “pads,” made up 22% of worldwide PC sales during the fourth quarter of 2011. Yes, Canalys was counting tablets as PCs.

Fast forward to today, and Canalys has just released the numbers of PC sales for the fourth quarter of 2012. Still counting tablets as PCs, that 22% grew to 33%. Canalys also relays that “one in six PCs shipped in Q4 2012 was an iPad.”

This brings us back to the “What is a PC?” question. Last year, Harry informally surveyed his Twitter followers and found the following general consensus:

A PC runs apps. The owner gets to define the device’s capabilities by installing software on it–and, these days, by using it with Web-based services.

It’s a general-purpose device. You can use one to write a novel, balance a checkbook, listen to a symphony, design a jumbo jet or pretend you’re Batman. True, most people don’t use a single PC for quite so dizzying an array of tasks–but they could.

It’s designed principally for use by one person at a time. That’s where the “personal” in “personal computer” comes in. It’s a computer for you, which was a pretty radical notion when the PC first got going in the mid-1970s, and still a liberating one.

It can be of any size. Which means that smartphones are PCs, since they run general-purpose software and are generally used by one person. In an era of products such as Samsung’s Galaxy Note, which is as much tablet as phone, I see no reason to declare that something isn’t a PC simply because it fits (just barely) into a pocket.

I’d say that consensus still holds up today, and I’d add that as each year passes, we’ll probably put less and less effort into trying to define what constitutes a personal computer and what doesn’t. Though some have argued that we’re in the “post-PC” era, I’d argue the so-called era to be a short one. “Post-PC” simply acts as a temporary phrase used to differentiate between a box on your desk or something with a hinge on your lap, a slab you poke at with your finger or a smaller slab you poke at with your finger and that fits in your front pocket and can make phone calls.

But in the not-too-distant future, if you’re using a personal device that computes things, it’s not going to matter what you call it. It might not even be referred to as a PC or a tablet or a smartphone. Within the next 10 years or so, my bet’s on each person carrying a single highly portable, super powerful device that docks into inexpensive desktop, laptop, tablet, TV, car dashboard and smartphone shells, depending upon the usage scenario. One tiny computer that can shape-shift as needed: that’s the definition of the PC I want.

MORE: Why We Need a New Definition of ‘PC’

PHOTOS: A Brief History of the Computer

6 comments
TechFlashed
TechFlashed

Ha ha nicely written , Yups every one wants to access the docs on the go , but for developers desktop still has lot to offer. 


JasonDStanfield
JasonDStanfield

Can you view two apps or programs at the same time on the same screen, on a phone or tablet????? NO!!
so its a propper PC for me. not pretend gadgets... that keep people stupid and spending money.
monkey see, monkey do.
the fact that i can upgrade my cpu/gpu/ram/hard drives, to get extra life out of it, instead of having to buy a new gadget every 12-18months, is what real computer users prefer.
But thank you for your input.

fatality1515
fatality1515

PC is not going anywhere! Smartphones and tablets are just devices for a particular purpose around the PC, e-mail, some internet surfing, watching videos, and that's about it. You will not be doing any 8K video editing on your puny little smartphone, any decent gaming or any serious work for that matter.

Why the hell would I work on a 4 inch screen (smartphone) or making selections on a tablet by waving my hands around like an idiot, when on a PC I can move my comfortably resting wrist half an inch to move my mouse cursor 24 inches across the screen.. I will not bother mentioning all the wonderful benefits of having a dedicated keyboard and shortcuts.

Plus smartphones and tablets will hit a dead-end soon in processing power, you can shrink transistors only so much..

Whoever wrote this article is seriously out of touch with reality..

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

Sorry,but if you're trying to write a novel on a smartphone, you're doing it wrong!


JamminWithEdwin
JamminWithEdwin

I completely agree with you.  The post-PC era is a kind of transition that will inform how we're going to do our computing in the next 50-60 years.  I think what we'll see is saturation of urban areas with wireless devices that all interlink with each other to form a mesh network.  It may well be that each individual device is not especially powerful, but instead the sum of the processing power in the local area would be a factor.

I'm not a programmer or hardware expert, but it's an idea I have.  Great article!  Thanks for writing.

jsk
jsk

@JasonDStanfield 

By your own definition, the 1981 IBM PC pictured in the article ISN'T a PC (though it most certainly was and is).