If there ever was an oxymoron, “personal computer” is it. What exactly is personal about the personal computer? The problem is that the term personal in personal computer defines a number rather than describes the device.
At the time that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak developed the Apple I and later the Apple II, which was the first personal computer to garner significant sales, computers were shared amongst multiple people. (The earliest “personal” computers, including the Apple I, were kits the owners had to assemble and program to make functional.) Computers were hidden away in sterile, air conditioned rooms were only the system operators were allowed to enter.
One obtained time to use the computer by submitting stacks of punched out cards, which the system operators loaded into the computer for you and later, after the computer had processed your job, you could pick up the output printed on paper. At no time did a user have physical access to the computer, and most likely a user’s job was one amongst many processed by the computer at any given time.
The significance of the Apple I and other “personal” computers of their time is that a person, the user, could physically possess the computer and therefore it only ran your programs. As the owner of the computer you could tinker with the hardware to add features. Perhaps more importantly, one did not have to wait to have their programs run because the computer wasn’t being shared with other programmers.
While history records the Altair, IMSAI, Apple I and II as the first “personal” computers, in truth they were never called such, instead they were simply computers. Even to this day rarely, if ever, will one refer to a Mac as a personal computer. It was IBM that really made the term popular with the launch of the IBM PC in 1981. With the weight of the largest computer company behind it, the term has stuck to this day, an unfortunate result, in my opinion.
Fast forward from 1981 to January, 2010 and the introduction of the Apple iPad. Later at the D: All Things Digital Conference in June, 2010, Apple CEO Steve Jobs proclaimed that the post-PC era had begun. During a Q&A session Jobs made the analogy of PCs being like trucks, which still exist and fill a need but are no longer the main type of vehicle that most people purchase. In effect, Jobs said that the PC will never go away, but that for the majority of people the iPad will provide sufficient computing capability.
Although I understand why the term “post-PC” fits to denote a pivot away from the type of computers most people have used in the past, I contend that in actuality the devices we have been calling personal computers all these years never were personal computers and that the tablets and smartphones now on the market today are the first real personal computers.
We aren’t in a post-PC era, instead we are seeing the beginning of the real personal computing era.
I understand that while you and others may agree with my logic, the truth is that the cat is already out of the bag. Just as unfortunately IBM’s choice of using “PC” to name their first desktop computers caused the term “personal computer” to stick, Steve Job’s use of the term “post-PC” is most likely going to make it stick.
I believe “post-PC” is an unfortunate term for two reasons, first it belittles the past and to a certain extent implies that the types of things people do with desktop and laptop computers is not personal computing. Writing documents and crunching numbers are still valid personal computing tasks, although in the future they might be done differently than how they have been done in the past.
The second unfortunate consequence of using the term “post-PC” is that it doesn’t put enough emphasis on just how early we are in the real personal computing era. For example, while the touch interfaces of tablets and smartphones are much more natural forms of operation than the keyboards of desktop computers, touch is not a function of communication. The first way we all learn to communicate, to interact with others, to provide input to others is by talking.
Siri is a good first step, but is far from perfect and thus a reminder that we are just at the beginning of something new and something bigger than just a turn over in the market of computers. In future posts I will write more about what is the focus of this site as well as my thoughts about how real personal computing looks.