Friday, April 30, 2010

Stross on the post-PC world – mostly right

Charles Stross is in good form with an essay on the post-PC world. It’s the world we’ve been expecting since Netscape Constellation (1996) and Larry Ellison’s proto-netbook (1995). That world became real for me in 2007 (yes, it was that long ago) with the iPhone and in 2008 with the Target netbook [1].

I agree with almost everything he wrote, with one big exception….

… Moreover, the PC revolution has saturated the market at any accessible price point. That is, anyone who needs and can afford a PC has now got one…

Uhhh, no. PCs are not cheap. Not at all. The iPad is cheap [3], but PCs are very expensive.

Yes, you can buy a “PC” for a pittance. It makes a crummy boat anchor though. If you want it to do something useful you need to buy internet service. Where I live that’s about $600 a year – year after year. Unless you bought a Mac, or are geek enough to go without, you need to buy antiviral software. In theory you also need to $150 or so for Microsoft Office. And good luck with backup.

But that’s not the real cost.

The real cost is that you need an IQ-equivalent of 110 or higher, and a love of debugging and troubleshooting. For most of the population, that’s absolutely unaffordable.

PCs are very, very, expensive. The iPad 2.0, or its rivals to come, can be the poor person’s computer [4].

So Charlie got this one point wrong – but it only strengthens his overall argument. My four month old quad core iMac running 10.6 is an anachronism [2]. Its era is passing. Welcome to the third era of the personal computer.

[1] I thought things would blow up in 2009. Didn’t happen! Microsoft dropped the price of XP to about nothing and crawled back enough control of the netbook to stun the market (same thing they did with Palm in the 90s by the way). It’s still going to happen, but that’s not the first time I’ve been wrong on transition times. I’ve since learned to take my time estimates for technology transitions and triple them.

[2] Charlie also omits the role Digital Rights Management (DRM) plays in driving this transition. DRM is one of the reason there’s so much good software being produced for the iPhone. Your CDs may be worth money some day.

[3] Not least because of the pay-as-you-go capped data plan. That’s as big a deal as the device. Yes, I know iPad’s require a PC-as-peripheral, but that will change within the year.

[4] Of course that’s what the original Mac was – the “computer for the rest of us”. Closed architecture. All applications were to be vetted by Apple. Strict UI standards. Heavy investments in usability and design. Single button mouse. It worked too – it really was easy to use. Much easier to use than OS X. Almost as easy to use as the iPad. History doesn’t repeat, but sometimes it spirals.

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