Today’s Technology: Post-PC or PC-Plus?

Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) former CEO Steve Jobs famously declared that we are now in a post-PC world — one where mobile devices are more important than the computer on your desk. When he launched the latest iPad in March, current CEO Tim Cook pointed out that Apple (which dropped the “Computer” from its name in 2007) boasts three highly successful post-PC product lines: the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

Post-PC is important to Apple. Although the company still makes and sells a lot of computers, it sold 172 million post-PC products in 2011 and they represented 76% of Apple’s revenues. Smartphones and tablets are highly profitable (well, at least Apple’s are), they’re more affordable than computers — which means a larger potential market — and people tend to replace them every year or two, instead of waiting for four or five years as they would with a PC.

Contrast Apple’s take on things with that of a computer manufacturer like Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) which prefers to think of now and the near future as being a PC-plus era. Interviewed in Businessworld, CEO Michael Dell had this to say:

“When a person buys a smartphone, it is not as a substitute to the PC. There is a continuous evolution of multiple form factors. Smartphones and Tablets are good at certain things like content consumption, while the PC would be good for content creation. In India and several other developing markets, I think the PC market is under-penetrated and there is significant room for growth. I think (the current market) can be described as PC plus rather than a Post-PC era.”

Other PC industry leaders including Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) are firmly in the PC-plus camp.

So there are two very different viewpoints on what’s happening. In Apple’s vision, mobile devices become powerful enough that they supplant the PC altogether. The PC industry prefers to think that these mobile devices are extras that are perfect for extending what a PC can do; you supplement your PC, with the computer remaining central.

Who is right? Is it Apple or the PC industry? I think the most telling thing about this post versus plus argument is that no-one is 100% certain at this point. Logically, it makes sense that we’d move toward a post-PC world, the one predicted in science fiction where everyone carries a tablet that handles all of their computing, communication and media consumption needs. If nothing else, it would save a lot of space and electricity.

However, mobile devices have many limitations today. Not many writers that I know are willing to switch from a computer with a keyboard and a big display to an iPad on a full-time basis. Sure, some do and many of us use an iPad for travel or short assignments, but tablets just aren’t able to replicate much of what we use a PC for without serious compromises. The same holds true for many occupations. Some adapt well to tablet use, but others will likely rely on computers for the foreseeable future.

Microsoft has recognized this limitation and is attempting to bridge the divide with its Surface Pro tablet, a mobile device that uses a powerful processor, runs a desktop operating system and full blown Windows software and includes a fully functional keyboard.

But even this is a recognition of the current approach across much of the PC and consumer electronics industries: Hedge your bets. Make your post or plus viewpoint known, but don’t count on being right, because if you gamble everything on one extreme or the other and you lose, you lose it all.

It isn’t just Microsoft. Dell is actively snapping up IT management companies in an attempt to lower its reliance on selling PC hardware, Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) is looking to the cloud for diversification and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) is furiously playing catch-up in the mobile, system-on-a-chip market. Even Apple continues to innovate and push boundaries with a full line of desktop and notebook PCs, despite scrubbing “computer” from its name and leading the post-PC era cheering.

Personally, I’m a big supporter of Apple products and use everything: an iPhone, IPad, iMac, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. I like what Apple is doing with mobile, but I think it’s too early to be calling this the post-PC era just yet. I’m hedging my bets too.

I think we’re in a phase where computer growth is slowing, mobile is expanding and some people are beginning to make the transition to purely mobile — but it could take decades for that to be a mainstream movement. Maybe think of this as the start of the slow decline of the PC era instead.

It’s not as catchy as post-PC or PC-plus, but I think it’s more realistic.

As of this writing, Brad Moon doesn’t own any securities mentioned here.

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