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Tablet Ousts PC as Primary Computer, at Least for Senior Executives

written by: •edited by: Aaron R.•updated: 8/12/2011

A CTO at IBM recently "traded in [his] PC for a tablet computer" according to a blog post where he describes our current computing environment as the "Post-PC Era." This has touched off a lot of debate, but it really makes perfect sense. As long as you are an executive with a huge tech company.

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    We Can Save Money on a Birthday Funeral!

    Thirty years ago today, the IBM Personal Computer changed the way businesses and homes operate. In that time, the PC, its cloned and evolved format, radically changed the way most of the world spent both their working and leisure time. Mark Dean, currently the CTO for IBM's Africa and Middle East division, was one of the engineers who worked on that first and several subsequent IBM PCs. To celebrate the big three-oh, Mr. Dean posted on IBM's Building a Smarter Planet blog an entry with the title IBM Leads the Way in the Post-PC Era (1). That is right: the PC's birthday card came with an announcement that we were now post-PC. This is a bit like a Valentine's Day poem reading: Roses are red, Violets are blue, There's someone else, The packed bags are for you.

    Maybe it's a gag card and if we open it we'll see the blog was just teasing the PC. "Little did we expect to create an industry that ultimately peaked at more than 300 million unit sales per year." Wait: "ultimately peaked?" That carries a lot of finality. Nothing happens after the ultimate. It goes: everything from before, then penultimate, ultimate, then done. And, peaked in the past tense?

    Is Mark Dean really no longer enamoured with the machine, no, life changing tool, he helped create 30 years ago?

    "I, personally, have moved beyond the PC as well."

    Wow. It sounds like he is really over you PC.

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    How Can You Leave Behind the PC?

    I don't mean leaving PC for Mac, no one wants to retread that tired old debate. I mean leaving anything with mouse and keyboard as primary input devices behind and letting the screen do the work. This is where people start yowling. I said it at CES. M. S. Smith said it recently when explaining why you shouldn't try to replace a computer with an iPad for students. Everyone I have asked about it has said largely the same thing.

    1) You can't really work without a keyboard.

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    2) The size of the keyboard and screen heavily influence how efficiently you can work.

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    3) You can't replace your computer with a tablet. Sooner or later you will have to write out something longer than a couple hundred words, or look at something on a larger screen to make sense of it.

    Yes, you can get a stand and keyboard for a tablet. I will borrow another argument from Mr. Smith's piece above. Adding a stand and keyboard adds to the size, reducing the vaunted portability of the tablet. Essentially you are on a scale. You can keep getting accessories for a tablet to make it more comfortable to type and work on, but eventually you end up with something as big and expensive as a laptop except the laptop would have a bigger screen and run a full OS, making it eminently more practical.

    So how can someone who knows so much about the IT landscape as a CTO at IBM and one of the first PC's developers be at such odds with the user community? It is specifically because he is the CTO of a massive technology company, actually.

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    Still Beautiful After All These Years

    Is the PC dead? Well this one probably is by now.
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    It's Not You, It's Me

    A CTO in a big tech company has a very different work day than most people. Mr. Dean, specifically overseeing the Africa and Middle East region, probably travels an order of magnitude more than anyone whose job isn't based around requiring travel. That alone makes a tablet attractive.

    Remember that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more time you spend reading reports as opposed to writing them. A tablet is a brilliant media consumption device. Reading the 20 page report with your tablet during a flight to a meeting is great. Writing a 20 page report at your desk on a tablet doesn't strike me as efficient. I would guess that Mr. Dean spends more time in strategic analysis, decision-making and liasing than he does personally preparing reports. And rightly so.

    Also in his defence, at one point in the post, Mr. Dean says "My primary computer now is a tablet" (my emphasis). And there is the admission. When the time comes, presumably when there is some coding to do or a long email to write, a traditional computer comes into play. As a CTO at IBM, the thought of "What if you could only have one: tablet or PC;" the concept that one's personal access to technology could be limited by budget, isn't a priority. Any family with school-aged children in the house is better off with a computer than a tablet, but if you can afford both then that is a moot point.

    Still, compared to users that can readily afford both PC and tablet, the large tech company executive is not going to need to worry about finding a computer the way we mortals would. Does anyone really think that Mark Dean would have the same kind of trouble we would getting access to a computer if he needed to write something up and didn't feel like using his portable keyboard and tablet?

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    You Are Taking This the Wrong Way

    So it is fair to say that a senior tech executive is going to have differing activities, and therefore differing needs from his computing devices, than you or me. Granted this, we can say that for almost all people and businesses, the PC (yes, or Mac) still trumps a tablet. But that isn't really what is at the heart of living in the "Post-PC Era." That is described as:

    PCs are being replaced at the center of computing not by another type of device—though there’s plenty of excitement about smart phones and tablets—but by new ideas about the role that computing can play in progress. These days, it’s becoming clear that innovation flourishes best not on devices but in the social spaces between them, where people and ideas meet and interact. It is there that computing can have the most powerful impact on economy, society and people’s lives.

    Obviously, a standalone PC, no matter how powerful, with no Internet access is of terribly limited use: certainly of less benefit than a tablet or even smartphone able to get online. But is that really anything new? It's been a long time since we typed letters to print and mail instead of just clicking send. Phones and tablets certainly make it easier for us keep up with what is being sent our way and make brief contributions, but a computer lets you do all that and write a long email and see more of a spreadsheet at a time.

    We are indeed in an era where the benefits of a PC's connectivity outstrip the power of the PC itself. But, as long as the PC is the most efficient way to get online, dubbing this era "Post-PC" is a bit like calling a period of interstate highway building Post-Car.

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    Sometimes You Just Need Some Time Alone

    Desks and offices pre-date computers. The idea that you sit and work at a place which is conducive to doing such is long-standing in our way of life. That you can get away from the desk sometimes and still handle things from a tablet or even a phone is great, but if there is a lot of hard work to do sometimes it just makes sense to sit in one place and focus on it. As long as you are going to have a desk to work at, why have the tiny screen and keyboard of a tablet? Being "Post-PC" implies being post desk, which is a lovely thought. We can all hang out on the beach and still be productive by participating in these social and collaborative spaces exchanging good ideas in a modern virtual Haight-Ashbury.

    Collaboration and technology are wonderful things, but there is another issue with the "Post-PC Era." While "the social spaces between" our computing devices are indeed thrilling and allow everything from popular uprisings to international collaboration in real-time by employees of large companies to begin, at one point, after the exchange, everyone needs to go do the work for these things to grow. And if for you, that involves sitting still, you may as well have a big screen and a nice keyboard.