The Post-PC Era: What Does It Really Mean?

Arthur Cole

It's been a slow but steady drumbeat, but the talk in technology circles is increasingly turning toward the "post-PC era" in which the trusted desktop ceases to be the main portal through which people interact with the data environment.

As with most discussions of this sort, there is a kernel of truth here, but some of the conclusions being drawn from that truth are way off the mark.

First of all, the idea of a post-PC world should not by any means suggest that we will someday be in a "non-PC world." Like it or not, the standard keyboard, monitor and tower configuration will endure simply because there is a wide range of applications that simply do not lend themselves to any other format. Activities like word processing, graphics design, genome sequencing and the like are barely feasible on a top-end laptop, let alone a smartphone. Even more run-of-the-mill enterprise applications, like CRM and BI are feasible on a tablet, but it's not an ideal situation.

In many ways, the PC issue is nothing more than a war of words between entrenched interests looking to define themselves in a changing IT landscape. As's Tim Carmody points out, Apple and Microsoft have been bickering over the terms "Post-PC" and "PC Plus," ostensibly as a proxy for the companies' divergent strategies in the mobile technology. The thing is, both monikers describe essentially the same thing: a world in which lines are blurred between data platforms and infrastructure. The only difference is that Apple sees a more mobile-centric development path that eventually leads back to the desktop, while Microsoft sees it the other way around.

Part of Apple's enthusiasm is understandable. The iPad is wildly popular and is a large part of the reason the company has made such a strong comeback in the enterprise after years of humiliation by Microsoft/Intel. The iPad, in fact, is set to overtake the notebook PC market by 2016, according to market research firm NPD. Overall, tablet sales are expected to increase from 121 million in 2012 to 416 million by 2017, compared to a jump from 208 million to 393 million for notebooks.

But missing in all this data is one salient fact: most people are not buying tablets and smartphones to replace their PCs, either at work or at home. The PC is still designated as the primary data manipulation and interaction tool while the mobile device is targeted at communication and collaboration. Social networking is and will continue to be the primary driver for the mobile market, and it also happens to be the technology of the moment for increased worker productivity. But this should not overshadow the fact that users prefer a range of data access devices and are eager to add to their personal stock. Cisco, for one, estimates that the average user will have 3.3 connected devices by 2014, up from 2.8 today. That would presumably include a desktop, a tablet, a smartphone and possibly an e-reader — the right device for the right task.

For the enterprise, then, the task ahead is not how to transition from a PC universe to a mobile one. Rather, the goal should be to integrate mobile into existing infrastructure, encompassing not only the PC, but virtualization, the cloud, storage and network consolidation and all the other forces hitting the data center. Tech analysts like FTM Consulting are already jumping at the opportunities that this presents with studies like "The Post-PC-Cloud Computing Era Structured Cabling Systems Market Analysis." The paper describes the impact wireless technologies will have on systems like 10 GbE networks, Cat 7 cabling, multimode fiber and Power over Ethernet (PoE).

It's the rare occurrence where one technology eliminates another. In fact, recent history indicates that new developments actually enhance the old by extending comfortable and familiar capabilities into new paradigms. Commodity servers begat virtualization, virtualization begat the cloud, the cloud is begetting collaboration and social networking, and so on.

Mobile technology is a part of the process, not the end-game.

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