19 July 2012

The Post-Tablet Era

We’ve all read the “Post-PC” hyperbole du jour being spouted by various pundits that purports to say that the ball-and-chain of the PC will be replaced by myriad task-based mobile devices resulting in the explosive over-connection of users. 

There are several problems with this “Tastes Great; Less Filling” ploy.

To date, every mobile device uses advertising-driven operating systems from Apple or Google (OK, the popular ones).  Their raison d’être is fine tuning the delivery of evermore targeted ads at users, which in turn generate revenue for Apple, Google and app developers.  Because of this primary motive, advertising-driven operating systems are at odds with delivering productivity because, like phone sex services, they make money based on time spent, not efficiency.

In addition, several recent studies have shown that click-through rates for online advertising are considerably less than dusty old direct mail (better known as junk mail). Advertising may turn out to be a game of diminishing returns.  The more bombarded, the more inured we become to their effects; another boy too often crying “wolf.”  I’m not here to fix advertising, but I do wonder about the long-term fate of operating systems and apps whose revenue is derived from fostering it.

The other problem with proclaiming the post-PC world is that currently there’s nothing to replace it.  Sheer computing power and size considerations aside, mobile operating systems do not offer a platform capable of running the same richness of applications as a PC.  Tablets offer snippets of larger data sets and limited tools for interacting with it (after all, most apps are tidbits of data teased into a specialized data container for those too lazy to type a URL).

We are also in a period of device explosion or as the Italians say, throwing pasta (or “shit” if you’re in sales) against a wall to see what sticks.  In the developed world, people average three-point-something internet-connected devices and that will double in less than five years.  Device proliferation can partly be blamed for the rise of gargantuan purses, non-sporting backpacks, and the dreaded “murse.”  Even an IT geek’s cargo shorts have limits. 

It’s safe to say the ultimate winner won’t be the maker of the most device types, but rather the maker with the fewest devices required for the highest level of productivity. For this reason, it’s even safer to say that the PC isn’t going anywhere, at least for a while. 

Today’s mobile devices are a tight balance between processing and ergonomics, a battle fought by laptops years ago.  The other wrinkle is the desire to intertwine computing with communications, both with their own ergonomic needs.  As processing dynamics improve, today’s ad-driven, immature tablets will die a relatively quick death like mobile phone bricks.

For example, I got my first laptop in 1990. For sixteen years I owned both a desktop and a laptop before dropping the desktop PC for a lone laptop six years ago.  I got my first tablet nearly two years ago and never imagined it becoming my primary computer.  After getting a Windows 8 test-tablet a month ago, I guarantee it will not be sixteen years before I drop the laptop for a tablet-like device.  Speed, storage and screen size and resolution will be the key deciding factors, all of which will improve relatively quickly.

You may be thinking I’ve just negated my premise about the “post-PC era” but I haven’t.  Windows 8 extends the PC era in the same way laptops extended desktops. 

Microsoft Windows is the traditional (and bloated) operating system that’s slimmed down and become touch-sensitive in version 8.  Users can enjoy their apps and “real” PC applications without visiting the ad-driven whorehouses of Apple and Google.

Windows 8 marries the mobile with the stationary, most notably running the Office Suite on either device; a first for a (presumably) mass-produced tablet.  It turns today’s plaything tablet into a new PC form factor (FYI, the most downloaded Apple app is an Office emulator).  For Apple to compete, the extra step of the iTunes interface must go away.  Apple will have to also merge its PC and mobile operating systems to create a merged experience. 

Ease of use is an oft sited hallmark of Apple iPhone/iPad and to a lesser extent Google.  While Microsoft’s traditional operating system may not be termed user-friendly, it is engrained into the computer literate public.  Unlike Apple’s intuitive tiles, Microsoft’s usability comes from sheer repetition.  For those seeking a more tile-friendly and colorful world, there’s the Microsoft’s Metro interface. Personally it seems a little remedial to me.

Touching on Android, it’s an illustration of too many cooks spoiling the soup.  Versions have been flying out at such a pace that developers haven’t caught up.  Most smartphones run Android 2.3 while tablets are on 4.0, unless you have a tablet that was stranded on the 3.0 version.  Backing this up are Avaya and Cisco whose first iterations of tablets (Cius and Flare) were Android-based.  Both have been largely abandoned in favor of iPad.

Finally, Windows 8 tablets have standard USB plugs!  Nearly every technology reviewer has lamented about how Steve Jobs’ plug phobia resulted in some wonderful, albeit less useful, designs. 

Am I giving the win to Microsoft?  Hardly.  This is just the latest skirmish in the continuing struggle to make computing more effective.    Microsoft has also been known for as many blunders as successes, especially in recent years.  Like Star Trek movies, every other release of Windows seems to be a bomb, with Windows 7 being the latest success; Windows 8 is in a difficult position. 

Microsoft has also made a fundamentally stupid move by not enabling an upgrade from Windows Phone 7 to Windows Phone 8. Not only does this strand users, it’s another reminder that you’re not dealing with Apple.  But while Windows 8 is a Hail Mary play that will succeed or fail for Microsoft in 2013, a unified, non ad-driven operating system is the future.

Steve Jobs jumpstarted the tablet form factor, but in merging mobile and stationary operating systems, Microsoft has upped the ante.  Post-PC? No.  A new PC form factor? Yes.

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