Defining the Post-PC Era

June 16, 2011
By

Steve Jobs and Apple are getting headline stories about the declaration of the Post PC Era; but the reality is that Post PC era started at least 10 years ago. The catalyst has been the fact that Microsoft with its ironclad monopoly wiped out a creative ecosystem around the PC [just look at the software scene on the Windows PC, if the market is big Microsoft likely dominates it]. For the past 10 years venture capitalists have been saying to start-ups with unfailing zeal – “tell us how you are going to get around the Microsoft monopoly otherwise there is no money for it”. So new technology and software had to go to the Internet or to Open Source or to new form factors like mobile to get financing and to fend off Microsoft’s dominance of all things client oriented in computing.

But there are three other factors as well. First, Microsoft could never see a reason to displace its Windows and Office monopolies with a new venture – why give up obscene margins and profitability for a chance at maybe some more obscene profits. Thus, having eliminated Go and the Pen OS, Microsoft’s ventures in the mobile device arena always fell too short on features, performance and/or price. Nobody else was allowed to develop in this tablet PC market unless they pledged allegiance to Microsoft.

Also the PC has become  a hydra, incorporating all the latest hardware and software nuances that had big market potential without reference to different user needs and groupings. For example, a large and ill-served user need not met by PCs or even laptops was the PCLite or Netbook. This light, easy to use, long battery-life PC provides communication and consumption computing. No need for heavy duty computing power like modeling/software development or creative media design or heavy metal 3d gaming. Rather the emphasis is on   browsing, mail-communications, audio and movie playback, a selection of games and small but diverse set of operational programs run in the browser or connected directly as client-server apps.

But a curious alliance of Microsoft Bill Gates and Linux/Open Guru Richard Stallmann killed one of the best opportunities in the JVM to deliver this cross platform PCLite. So when the Asus EEE and other Netbooks appeared in 2008-2009, Linux was not ready with a comfortable tested client [ubuntu's Natty Narwhal is very good but 2 years too late] and all Microsoft had to do was resurrect Windows XP and dump a stripped down version on Netbooks and take 80% of the market in less than a half year. However, this was a Pyrrhic victory because it blinded Microsoft to the false assumption that clunky, memory and computing power guzzling Windows with a bit of tuning could be dispatched to trample the emerging mobile smartphones and tablets.

Why Mobiles Thrived

But these lite devices were new ways to allow for media and software consumption on a personal basis without having to hoist around a heavy, energy guzzling and low-battery life lugtop PC. But mobiles also sported a whole new set of sensors, cameras, location monitors plus touch+gesture easy-to-learn operations. And these plus video telephone+browsing without a huge wait time to boot up or a large learning curve or the threat of bugs and viruses to wreak havoc at the worst possible time have won a huge and expanding beachhead in Fortress Windows.

In sum, Microsoft was predisposed to discount if not ignore the underlying demands that make the mobiles smartphone and tablet markets such runaway successes. So for the first time  in their mutual coexistence since Apple II days, Apple’s revenues at $85B for 2010 far exceeeded Microsoft’s at $65B.

2 More Factors for Slow Redmond Innovation

The second factor that doomed the PC to low innovation has been the Microsoft anti-Web stance. Anti-Web? Some might cite ASP, Visual Studio Web Development features, and Silverlight among others as proof to the contrary. But each of these software tools is highly proprietary  and Windoiws platform dependent as is the whole Microsoft set of Web offerings – they are designed to work best and often, on the integration aspects, only with Windows. In addition, Microsoft’s ambivalnce about the Web  can be seen in its failure to update IE6 for 6 long years. No new features in IE just security updates. Worse, Redmond failed to deliver on pledges made in late 1998 to closely follow W3C web standards. Only this year’s IE9, meets HTML, DOM, CSS, and JavaScript standards that all the other browsers have met for 3 to 6 years before IE; but now IE9 is behind in HTML5, CSS3 and other Web 2 and mobile Web standards.

This opposition to the Web plus Microsoft’s  threadbare support of non-Windows OS platforms has put Redmond at a disadvantage vis a vis Google not just in the Search Engine market but a broad range of Web services like Mapping and Geolocation, Blogging and Translations,  Photos and Video support+apps, and now even in Office like apps. Clearly, Microsoft is not desperately outclassed; but it is also is not the first option considered when working on the Web or in the Cloud space.

The third factor accelerating a Post PC era is Microsoft hubris about its development teams. Even if Redmond was late to market, they had the best developers at 1 Microsoft Way. Microsoft could pick and choose from the emerging best technology directions, and they could buy any experts or requisite technologies in a $moment’s notice like in the case of Ray Ozzie or Kinect. The problem has been that this software juggernaut delivered Vista, internecine campus warfare which reduced the effectiveness of the now-departed Ray Ozzie, a string of hapless tablets and some instant technology investments which have failed to pan out. Finally as noted above , easy entree and early wins in emerging markets helped instill an attitude of Windows invincibility where in fact the codebase at 50++ million lines of code has become a barnacled anchor-weight of integration and debugging nightmares.

Consequences of Dominance: Disruption and Role Reversal

So the Post PC era really started started in earnest about 2005-2006 when the PDAs and  iPod continued to thrive despite all that Microsoft threw at them . Microsoft certainly did not lack some of the light, easy to use, long battery life or messaging/Internet communication ingredients that Palm, RIM then Apple and finally Google Android had; but Microsoft was constantly trying to retro-fit this into the Windows mold. And Microsoft was late to UI touch/gestures plus the plethora of sensors that were adding real value to mobiles. So now Redmond is in role reversal – playing catchup with Apple, Google, and RIM dominating the fast growing markets Micro want to win in.

For example, Apple dominates the early adopter mindshare like Redmond used to. Apple is setting up a tight ecosystem with iTunes, Appstore and upcoming iCloud that Microsoft can only hope to emulate as successfully. One can easily imagine Steve B. secretly admiring Steve J. for having rejected any cross platform development tools and strictly controling the tools that work on his iOS operationg environ. Also having “yea or nay” say on what apps can be admitted to a platform might have saved  Microsoft from the brunt of bugs, virus, and hack attacks of the mid 1990s through to the present day. And being able to take a 30% slice of all software and apps sales that run on his platform, no wonder Apple is growing so fast that it has leaped past Microsoft with $85B in sales in calendar 2010 – $20B more than Redmond.  And Steve J.  has that old Windows API black magic having approval through the iOS APIs for all the hardware and software vendors that use or link to his platform because they need software drivers that must confirm to Apples standards. Wow – talk about disruption in the PC market.

And role reversal. Now Microsoft is playing catchup. But not to just Apple because Google and RIM are major players as seen in the latest Comscore Smartphone market shares:

Top Smartphone Platforms
3 Month Avg. Ending Apr. 2011 vs. 3 Month Avg. Ending Jan. 2011
Total U.S. Smartphone Subscribers Ages 13+
Source: comScore MobiLens
Share (%) of Smartphone Subscribers
Jan-11 Apr-11 Point Change
Total Smartphone Subscribers 100.0% 100.0% N/A
Google 31.2% 36.4% 5.2
Apple 24.7% 26.0% 1.3
RIM 30.4% 25.7% -4.7
Microsoft 8.0% 6.7% -1.3
Palm 3.2% 2.6% -0.6

 

And the scary thing is that this same chart is likely to play out in the rapidly growing tablet market too. Apple’s iPad will be displaced by Google Android tablets in a similar fashion before this time next year. So whose Post-PC Era market is it? And how far beyond the Post will PCs go?

How far Going Beyond the Post

For the past month or so, ye Editor has been using an iPad and an Android smartphone for  a variety of contract tasks.  Let me tell you that easy to learn touchscreen operations mask a lot of woeful shortcomings for both the smartphone and especially the iPad.For example, in the iPad it is not trivial to close down or switch among tasks, see multiple tasks running at the sametime on screen, transfer data between tasks [how can you drag and drop if you cant see multiple tasks running at the sametime]. Mein Gott, it is is impossible to import text files, photos, and Office-like docs into the iPad[all safe or easily scanned files/objects for avoiding viruses]. And as for keyboard shortcuts like CTRL+C, CTRL+A, CTRL+V, PageDown, HOME…some proxies will be available in iOS5 and Android 4 on Google’s side but suffice it to say the mobile spaces ideal UI experience has far from been determined.

But even more important, the degree to which the familiar Mac or PC GUI experience can be adapted to  and taken advantage of in  the smartphone and tablet spaces is yet to be determined among all the major UI+device vendors – Apple, Google, HP/Palm, Microsoft, and RIM. This horse race is far from over. The keyboard, tabs, dropdown menus, and iconbars are not dead by a longshot.

Also the low-power/long battery-life computing chip technology is about to present the mobile device and PC vendors with quad-core chips with specialized graphics processing [think Nvidia Tegra3 or the Qualcomm Snapdragon ] that will give 4x to 5x times the speed of the current tablet processors with 70% less power and available starting in  Christmas 2011. And SSD-Solid State Disk drives are coming to tablets with at least  doubling  in speed and storage capacity while consuming 20-30% less power. It should be clear that smartphones and tablets will have more than adequate hardware – so the prowess of vendor OS software will be  the key factor in how much Post will come to PCs.

But consider this, for software development, financial trading, and graphics design 2-3 screens are the norm for users. For simple, operations management or help/support positions multiple tasks on screen at the same time is the norm. Mac or Windows GUI interfaces are spurned by some shops as character driven interfaces are used for their hands down speed of entry advantages. Finally, no tablet has yet produced a full strength creative design system equivalent to what is available on a Mac or PC[iPad Garage Band should have been doable much more powerfully on the Mac but Steve J. still demurs on providing touchscreen operations for his Mac computers].

Summary

In sum, at this juncture is it is still hard to predict how much of the Total Client Computing market will fall to smartphones and tablets and what percentage will remain with Macs and PCs. Which gets the bigger slice of the Post-PC-Era-as-evolving has some interesting potential splits. Clearly media consumption and communication favors smartphones and tablets [but media on big screens tends to favor PCs] while design, creation and operational tasks favors Macs and PCs. But by how much? And will a hybrid dockable tablet like the Asus EeePad Transformer steal from both markets. Or is that hybrid OS to be the competitive advanatge of Windows 8? Or does RIM have a leg up with its QNX/OS with that OS’s  ability to straddle well both the touchscreen/mobile and PC spaces.

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