Something strange and wonderful is happening. The world undergoing a radical change driven by technology at a phenomenal and unprecedented pace. Technology has of course been changing our lives for the better since the invention of the wheel. Modern society has transformed rapidly since the Industrial Revolution, following which we have had the Atomic, Jet and Space Ages. We are now in the Digital Age, marked by two key inventions: the computer and the internet. These two inventions have made our lives unrecognizable in under a generation, but now we are at the brink of a major revolution within the Digital Age itself – the Post PC Era.
I started using computers in the late 80s, playing games like Space Invaders on my father’s Sharp “laptop” with a 7 MHz 8088 processor, two 720K 3.5″ floppy drives (no hard drive), 640KB or RAM and MS-DOS 4.1. A couple of years later I got my very own machine, a Packard Bell desktop with a 386 processor, 2MB RAM, 20MB hard drive, 3.5″ and a 5.25″ floppy drives, a 14″ VGA monitor and an external NEC single speed CD-ROM drive, and taught myself programming on it. It was primarily a DOS machine, and Windows 3.1 crawled on it. Ah, nostalgia! Those specs are laughable by today’s standards, but the basic design of laptops and desktops has essentially remained the same. What’s changed drastically over time however, is PC penetration. Back then, PCs were the largely the purview of the technologically privileged few. Microsoft was on the ascendancy, and Bill Gates the pioneer was my hero. Nearly two decades hence, the PC has reached ubiquity. Gates’ dream of a computer on every desktop, at least in the developed world, has been achieved. The following chart (from asymco) tells the story:
For three decades, the PC has been the primary computing device, but now all that is changing with the explosive growth of smartphones, tablets and other cheap computing devices. Another chart (from asymco) should leave you in no doubt as to the declining role of of PCs:
So, why is this happening? There are two fundamental reasons. The first is that the trend of computers becoming faster, smaller and cheaper has reached the stage where an incredible amount of computing power is available in an affordable device that fits in your pocket. The PC is a general purpose computing device, and was the de-facto choice for both creation and consumption activities. Now however, more specialised devices can be used, especially for consuming content. A computer to listen to music? The iPod. A computer to read books? The Kindle. You get the picture. The second is the ubiquity of fast, wireless internet connectivity – WiFi and mobile broadband. This means that you don’t need a PC to access the internet anymore. It’s far more convenient to whip out your smartphone to access your email or look up the meaning of synecdoche. The Post PC Era is all about affordable, connected, specialised devices.
As we break free from the confines of the PC, amazing new possibilities emerge. Possibilities that challenge the way we lead our lives. As an avid technologist, I have experienced the start of this change first-hand, and it has been striking. For thirty years there hasn’t been much change in the way we have used PCs apart from a general shift towards laptops versus desktops. All this changed virtually overnight with the advent of the smartphone to rule them all, the iPhone. I distinctly remember the aha moment when I realised the power of having “the internet in your pocket”. I had moved to London in late 2008 from Australia (where the iPhone wasn’t available when I left), so I was looking forward getting the iPhone once I settled in. The US Open started a few days after I arrived in London and one day, during lunch with some friends, someone asked what the current match score was. My first thought was to go to the nearest TV, but someone whipped out their shiny iPhone and looked up the score in a matter of seconds. I sat there smiling and shaking my head.I got my iPhone 3G soon after that, and it changed my life. The internet became an extension of my brain. Since then, smartphones have become almost ubiquitous in the developed world. I now have an iPad in addition to my smartphone and laptop, and I am finding myself using my laptop less and less when it comes to consuming content. Since London, I’ve been living in India where my favourite magazine Wired isn’t easily available and is expensive when it is. My tablet aha moment came when I discovered I could finally read Wired regularly by subscribing to the iPad edition which apart from being much more affordable is a better experience than the paper version since it is interactive. The time will soon come when high-quality tablets are as ubiquitous as smartphones and PCs. But we have only scratched the surface of what is possible in the Post PC Era. In future posts, I will discuss what to expect in areas such as business, entertainment, healthcare, finance, education, manufacturing, transport and software development.
So far I have only talked about the developed world, but the fact is that more than 85% of the world’s population lives in developing countries, a figure that is growing. From a global perspective, the most promising aspect of the Post PC Era is the impact it will have in the developing world. Two years ago I tweeted about a UN study which revealed that far more people in India had access to cellphones than toilets. With prices of low-end smartphones falling sharply, a future where virtually everyone in the developing world has a smartphone is just around the corner. For the majority of people in the world, smartphones will be the first internet access device. If basic text-based services such as M-PESA can have such a profound impact on millions of people, imagine the possibilities of a full-blown smartphone and other Post PC Era devices! Efforts such as Intuit’s txtWeb are commendable, but organisations looking to innovate and have an impact in this space must, like Jeff Bezos, take a long-term view.