Thursday, 25 October 2012

Welcome to the Post-PC era

(Another) big week in Tech

Surface: When is a Windows device not a PC?

This is the biggest week in the post-PC era so far.

For a start we've had Apple's latest iPad, taking everyone's favourite table to a lower price-point and a broader market.

Then we have Microsoft playing their game of How Windows 8 Launches Can We Confuse You With At Once (I count RT, Pro and Windows Phone so far, although that's not forgetting Windows Phone 7.8 and whatever enterprise/server variants of Windows 8 Pro they come up with).

And to round off the fesivities we'll have we've got Google on Monday lifting the lid on their latest Nexus phone and (allegedly) another attempted at a 10" tablet (don't hold your breath. Four words: Still No Tablet Apps).

What do you mean by the Post-PC era?

I'm been thinking a lot about the post-PC era in the last few months. It's clearly going to cause seismic shifts in the industry, not only in terms of devices but in terms of the underlying economics.

For two decades the WinTel monopoly has hoovered up the overwhelming majority of industry profits, leaving mere scraps for the PC OEMs to live off. Over the next five years this is likely to change.

Like "Cloud Computing", "Big-Data" and "Web 2.0", the "Post-PC era" is the sort of buzzword that is abused far more often than it is used. In essence it is the shift from the thick-client desktop PC or notebook as the primary compute hub, to multiple thinner-client mobile devices (for the moment, smartphones and tablets) accessing services hosted in a remote computing hub.

To me the the Post-PC era evolves from three key trends in the technology world.

  • First the shift to cloud computing, which I have documented elsewhere. Rather than running discrete apps like Word or Media Player on a desktop, the opening up of broadband pipes makes it more efficient to offer them as a services (e.g. Google Docs or Youtube) down the broadband pipe.
  • Second the rise of mobile broadband networks (hey we're actually getting LTE in the UK this year!) and the ubiquity of wi-fi, which means that devices which utilise these services no longer need to be tied to a plug or a network socket.
Wing Commander 2: A game that primarily revolved around
killed evil space cats with space ships. And sold millions
of new PCs to boot.
  • Thirdly the trend for fast-moving consumer cycles to drive rapid evolution in the quality of devices and services. A good example is how cutting-edge video games drove the increasing power of desktop PCs between 1990-2005 - that Wing Commander 2 sold a damn sight more 486s than Word 2 ever did. While enterprise computing is very slow, governed by 5-6 year upgrade cycles (11 year-old Windows XP still powers 4 out of 10 corporate PCs!), the 6-12 month cycles in the ultra-competitive smartphone world has driven startling improvements over the last five years.

What does a Post-PC device look like?

These three trends have given rise to a range of post-PC devices such as smartphones and tablets which share the following charateristics:

  • The device is primarily a window into a cloud ecosystem: More and more, vendors are not selling you a phone, they are selling you an ecosystem. You buy an iPad over an <insert pointless Android tablet here> because it kicks ass with a range of third-party apps. You buy a Kindle Fire because Amazon Prime gives you more media content than you can consume in a lifetime. You buy an Android phone because you run your life on GMail, Google Calender, Google Tasks and Google Docs.
  • The device is smaller and more mobile: Because more processing is done in the cloud and delivered via broadband, you only need a thin, mobile client. This dictates a smaller and more portable device. Thankfully the rise of the ARM SOC and the relentless improvements in fabrication processes driven by Moore's Law have given us precisely the right hardware to power such devices.
The ultimate post-PC appliance! :-p
  • Devices are more like appliances: Another result of a smaller, thinner device being built to a 6-12 month product cycle is that it tends to be more tightly integrated and closed. Whereas traditional PCs are built to last 5 years and be upgradeable, cheaper post-PC devices are only meant to last until next Christmas. This means the form-factor becomes more appliance like in terms of integration and lack of expansion (cf the latest Macbook Airs with their non-upgradable storage).
  • There are multiple devices, rather than just one: You don't have just one post-PC device. Because each is only a window into a centralised hub of services, and because they are smaller and cheaper, it makes sense to have different devices for different use-cases. Again this ties into the appliance point mentioned above - rather than having one general-purpose device you have a smartphone for accessing services on the fly and a tablet for sitting on the couch and watching movies.
  • The device is often subsidised up-front: The traditional PC value chain was always very fragmented, with your PC being purchased separately from your broadband, the DVDs you played on it and the apps/games which you ran on it. This meant each vendor was paid individually. In contrast the post-PC devices is merely a window onto a cloud ecosystem, and the business models of the vendors are much more integrated (AAPL being the prime example...). This means the hardware is often subsidised - either explicitly (by way of a two-year handset contract), or implicitly (e.g. Google and Amazon selling your tablets at cost and recouping the money via ads/product sales later).
Free... Provided you buy a matching diamante 24 month contract costing $960...

In a nutshell you get a cheaper, better looking and more mobile devices, subsidised up front. Heck you can even play Wing Commander 2 on it!

What's not to like?

Well quite a lot actually. Come back tomorrow as I start to delve into some of the trickier economics of the post-PC era!


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