Monday, August 29, 2011

Post-PC Era is a Myth: Relating the Evolution of Cars to Computers


Cars (or more accurately, motor vehicles) have more in common with computers than you might think. In fact, comparing cars and computers can help settle one of technology's current contentious debates: computer form factors.

Everyone today is raging over the idea that new form factors like tablets and netbooks are the harbingers of the PCs death. Depending on who you talk to (or have to listen to), there is always some new form factor is definitely going to kill another.

"Tablets are replacing laptops."
"Netbooks are the new notebook."
"Phone is the only computing device you need."
"The PC is dead."

It's all nonsense. Nonsense is normal in technology conversation, but a shocking number of decision makers and journalists seem to be buying-in to this notion that we're in the "Post-PC" era. Let's set the record straight.

Evolution of the Car & Computer (in America)

In the beginning there was the Model T, and it came in any color you wanted (as long as that color was black). For cars, Ford's Model T was the IBM PC of it's era. Not the first car, but the first car that brought the technology to the masses, much like IBM did in 1981 with the 8088. Sure, there were cars and computers before the Model T and IBM PC. But just as massive, inefficient steam engines had to give way to internal combustion to propel cars to the people, so too did computers that filled rooms have to give way to the digital desktop.

Early cars and early computers offered little choice for the masses. As their value was more widely recognized, though, the need for new types of cars and computers became clear.

For cars, people recognized that a better form factor was need for doing work. Something less oriented towards carrying people, and more oriented towards moving stuff. Enter the truck. For computers, in a similar vein of needing better machines to focus on work, we introduced servers.

Having proven value for home and work, cars and computers were asked to do more.

Trucks were good for local work and transport, but if something needed to move a long distance, or if cargo was particularly large, we needed a bigger truck. We needed a Semi-Truck (or Tractor Trailer). Big business had the same problem with computers. Powerful server computers were useful, but we needed something beefier, more efficient for the data center. We needed mainframes.

Meanwhile, as society progressed and moved from country farms to cities, car owners started to crave a form factor that offered more than simple utility. They wanted something fast. Something fun. Something designed for driving, not for hauling or ferrying passengers. The result was the introduction of sports cars. Fast, fun, and focused on the driver. Computers made a similar transition as people, now addicted to computing, wanted to take it with them everywhere. The sports car of computers is laptops.

Finally, wrapping-up our brief run through history, we reach an era where new sensitivities are at play.

Fuel is not cheap anymore, and people are starting to think about using form factors that deliver better value. People want cars and computers that are friendly on the wallet, the environment, and even more suited for active, urban lifestyles.

If you're hip, your car is a Smart car and your computer is an iPad.
If you're a geek, your car is a Prius and your computer is a netbook.

Durable Form Factors

One thing we can learn from cars is that the world is big enough to support multiple form factors. In fact, the world needs multiple form factors to accommodate all of the different ways cars are used. Trucks didn't replace cars any more than sports cars replaced the family sedan. Each delivers distinct value, and for some people, that means owning multiple car form factors to cover all motor vehicle needs.

Let's break down the unique value some of the most common car form factors provide:

  • Basic Car/Sedan: Your all purpose car. Good for moving people. Come in variety of sizes (2-door, 4-door, SUV), shape, and power. Some are good enough for basic work; some are just good enough to move you around.
  • Truck: Your simple work vehicle. Better for stuff than for people. If you don't do any work, you probably don't need one.
  • Semi-Truck: Essential for big work where a personal truck just doesn't cut it. Usually owned by businesses, not individuals.
  • Sports Car: For people that just need to drive. Sometimes enough to replace all other cars, especially if you don't need to share your ride with many passengers. If you occasionally need a car for moving stuff or people, this may have to be a second car.
  • Hybrid/Small Car: Gets you from point A to B efficiently. Makes the most of a little gas. Good enough as an only car for some people, but you're up a creek if you need to haul anything. Still proving itself as a viable form factor on the market, but quickly becoming more popular.

Mapping Form Factors: Cars to Computers

The comparisons between cars and computers are so good, it's scary. Let's start by breaking down computer form factors in a similar fashion to cars:

  • Desktop PC: The all purpose computer for consumers. If you need a PC that's equally ready to edit some family videos as it is to browse the web and edit documents, this is the choice. Available in a huge variety of sizes, shapes, and price points.
  • Server: Need a computer that can just serve web pages all day? Need something to hold your source control? You're probably a professional (or professional hobbyist), and you need a computer for hauling bits. You don't need the "all-in-one," you need the 12-core tower.
  • Mainframe: When petaflops are your goal, mainframes are your computers. Certain computing tasks, usually the domain of big business, need a big mainframe for the most efficient processing.
  • Laptop: Good as primary computer for some, but often owned as a second computer to a "all purpose" PC. Laptops can pack all the punch of a PC, but the compact power comes at a premium. Laptops are a bit harder to share as a family computer, but are great for the computer users on the go.
  • Tablet/Netbook: Offering the ultimate in mobility and battery life, tablets are great for consuming digital information. If you need to do a lot of content creation, though, tablets strain. Tablets (and netbooks, to a lesser degree) have quickly become a popular computer form factor, but they are still proving their long-term market viability.

By now, the comparisons should be clearly forming in your head:

  • Basic Car = Desktop PC
  • Truck = Server
  • Semi-Truck = Mainframe
  • Sports Car = Laptop
  • Hybrid = Tablet/Netbook

Whether we're talking cars or computers, each form factor has a place in the world and a group of people that will continue to depend on it.

The "Post-Sports Car" Era

We don't see the media hailing the "Post-Sports Car Era" now that there are new smaller, greener car form factors. We don't see anyone claiming "the Truck is dead."

With cars, which have been part of our lives for nearly 100 years, we know that we need these different types of cars to accomplish different tasks. The introduction of a new type of car doesn't mean the end of what came before.

It's time to learn that lesson with computers.

The introduction of tablets and netbooks will no more kill the desktop PC than laptops have managed to do in their lifetime on the mass market. Will the new form factors change the PC landscape? Yes, definitely! More Americans buy cars than trucks today, but the truck remains a vibrant component of auto sales. The PC may be shuffled and re-balanced with these new form factors, but it will not go away.

Developer Impact

If this is not the "Post-Anything" era, what does that mean for developers trying to write software for computers? Depending on your temperament and situation, it means one of two things:

  • OPPORTUNITY: Different computer form factors have different software needs, which means more opportunity for developers to create more software. If you can embrace the opportunity, equip your toolbox with essential tools, then there is money to be made. The only question is if you'll choose to specialize (like a BMW Mechanic) or be a jack of all form factors.
  • MORE WORK: More form factors does mean than you cannot write software once and be done. Just as the markets for trucks, cars, and hybrids are unique, so are the needs for different computer form factors.

Optimist or Wendy Whiner, developers should prepare for a long-term future filled with different "classes" of computer form factor. Good tools are a way to simplify development targeted at multiple form factors, such as the new Kendo UI tools that can help simplify HTML5 development for touchscreens and keyboard/mouse input. But tools or not, developers would be foolish to buy-in to the notion that any of the common computer form factors on the market today will be "post" any time soon.

So the next time someone tries to tell you that tablets are the death of the PC and we're entering the "Post-PC Era," just remind them that there are still trucks and sports cars on the road.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for standing up against the stupidity of this whole "Post-PC Era" thing.

Razor_goto said...

I think Steve Job said something like that already last year.

(I swear, I am not a fanboi.)

Todd Anglin said...

@Razor- Great point! Jobs is indeed a smart man, and I think accurate in that point.

Unfortunately, the "Post-PC" headline has been twisted and this subtly of Jobs' idea has been largely lost by the media. Hopefully this post serves to re-emphasize this important nuance:

Post-PC doesn't mean No-PC.

David said...

While I agree with the sentiments of the article, I've found in my experience over the past few years that there has been a shift away from the desktop as the primary all purpose consumer computer to the laptop. The decreasing price of laptops coupled with the convenience of a compact package that can doesn't consume an entire study desk and that can be used in the living room or kitchen (as opposed to actually taking the laptop out of the house) are sighted as the key factors in this shift.

The key model that I'm seeing as the primary computer is the cheap 15" laptop. Not only because of price, but most consumers I've talked like having a larger screen as they find it easier to read and still want the comfort of an integrated CD/DVD drive.

The key upshot of this is that most consumers have integrated Intel graphics and that's a factor to consider when developing for the consumer.

However, I would argue that the desktop is still the primary computer in the workplace. Additionally, these trends may differ according to geographical regions.

Todd Anglin said...

@David- Thanks for the comment.

I think you reinforce my point. True, laptops are very popular for many people (arguably, so are sports cars). But even in the face of that popularity, there are big audiences for the "traditional" PC, especially for the information worker.

And to further clarify, when I suggest "computer for work" (relating to trucks), I'm really referring to the people that do "hardcore" work with PCs, i.e. developers, scientists, and the like.

Ultimately, I think we agree all of these form factors have a place.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Todd,

You really didn't need to say Jobs is smart to flatter him, you did that well enough by copying his example with the cars.

Todd Anglin said...

@Anon- I guess great minds think alike. :) I wasn't aware of the Jobs quote before writing this article, but it seems to be in general agreement.

Though unlike Jobs, I'm arguing more in favor of the idea of "long term durability" of form factors, vs. society's transition to a "Post-[Form Factor]" era.