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