PC celebrates thirtieth birthday
On 12th August, the PC celebrated its 30th birthday. Few would have imagined that thirty years later we'd still have the same basic shape box and still refer to the hard disk as the "C Drive".
Back in 1981 we had mainframe computers which usually lived in dedicated air-conditioned computer rooms, mini-computers like the DEC PDP series which stood alongside the filing cabinets, and microcomputers like the Sinclair ZX81, the Acorn Atom, and the Commodore Pet. Microcomputers were mainly the province of the enthusiastic amateur and hobbyists and typically press-ganged the TV into service as a monitor. That all changed when, on 12th August 1981, IBM unveiled its version of the microcomputer, and coined the name Personal Computer, or "PC". IBM gave microcomputers respectability as a business tool, and even today we still talk about the computer on the desk as the "PC".
Mark Dean, IBM's Chief Technology Officer for IBM Middle East and Africa, and one of the original engineers who worked on the first PC, marked the 30th anniversary by blogging "Little did we expect to create an industry that ultimately peaked at more than 300 million unit sales per year" but then went on to say that he was also proud of IBM's decision to leave the PC business in 2005 and be the "vanguard of the post PC era". Dean says that his primary computing device is now a tablet and adds "while PCs will continue to be much-used devices, they’re no longer at the leading edge of computing. They’re going the way of the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records, CRT and incandescent light bulbs."
Steve Jobs, the recently retired CEO of Apple Computers, has been proclaiming over the past year that we are entering the post-PC era, and has said that PCs are like trucks, they are going to be around for years to come, but a smaller and smaller percentage of people will need them. Its hard to quibble with that. When the only affordable computing option was a desktop PC, that was the only choice for a very large percentage of people. Now that people have affordable alternatives, of course the percentage choosing the traditional PC will decline.
But does this make it the post-PC era or is that a marketing slogan? Is a "PC" defined by the size and shape of the box, and by the operating system it runs? I think not. Look at how the PC has changed in 30 years. The first models didn't have hard drives, or graphical screens. Now they do. They didn't have mice. Now they do. They didn't have USB ports or audio cards. Now they do. They didn't have windows, or things we now take for granted such as multi-tasking and being able to copy and paste from one application to another, and now they do. And they didn't even have modems or network cards, and now they have the internet. Today's desktop PC and notebook PC has far more in common with the tablet computer and the smart phones than it has with the first PC of 1981. And all of these devices have one distinctive feature. They are all personal devices. They give you the ability to decide for yourself what your computer is going to look like and what you are going to do with it.
The people who proclaim the end of the PC era need first to tell us what the PC era was defined by. Personal computing has never been about the size and shape of the box. It is about unleashing computer access and putting computing power in the hands of the end user. Computer technology evolves, and who knows what shape computers will be in the future, but give it another thirty years and I predict we'll still be calling them our PCs.
30th August 2011
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