My moderate scepticism about the Post-PC era

There is a fairly good definition of ‘Post-PC era’ on Wikipedia. This passage, I think, is especially relevant: When introducing Apple’s iCloud service in 2011, Jobs explained that the new platform would replace the PC as the “hub” for a user’s devices with the cloud — all of a user’s devices, including a PC, would be able to automatically synchronize and access media and other files between platforms. Apple’s current CEO Tim Cook continued to elaborate on the concept that a PC would no longer have to be the center of one’s digital life, and explained that mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones would be “more portable, more personal and dramatically easier to use than any PC has ever been.

Note that, in this scenario, the personal computer is not left entirely out of the picture, it is simply demoted and gets to be ‘just another device’, along with the tablet and the smartphone and any portable device whose screen size either makes it an oversized smartphone or a small tablet.

An increasing number of people, from what I’ve observed, like to imagine this Post-PC era as a stage in technological progress where the personal computer progressively becomes so irrelevant as not to be needed anymore. A scenario where we basically do everything on touch-based ultra-portable devices. Over the past months I have read quite the number of articles written by tech enthusiasts raving about being able to do actual work on their iPads and nothing else, their MacBooks just collecting dust on their desks.

All the talk about ‘going iPad-only’ has been admittedly rather intoxicating for me, since many of these geeks are essentially writers. Having to deal primarily with text is an activity I always found quite flexible, and as a writer myself I thought Yeah, why not, let’s try this little experiment. So I tried to go iPad-only for as long as I could. It lasted three days and a half.

Before you jump to conclusions, let me clear up something right now. I’m not saying that it’s impossible or unfeasible to do actual work by using just an iPad. Many people out there manage just fine. What I’m saying is that it’s unfeasible for me, for at least a couple of reasons.

1. A cramped workspace — The iPad’s screen real estate is simply not enough for me. And it gets worse when I use the iPad’s virtual keyboard in landscape orientation. I write the occasional piece and I happily take notes using great apps like iA Writer, Daedalus or Phraseology; but after a 30-minute session in any writing app, I simply start getting claustrophobic. I grow impatient. And if I need to switch between a few other apps, all that shuffling of apps taking the foreground starts getting cumbersome quickly. When I’m at my main machine — a 15-inch MacBook Pro connected to a 23-inch display, an external keyboard and mouse — pressing Alt-Tab to switch between open applications is way faster, and even if the flow may be similar (I keep a lot of applications in full-screen mode), on the Mac I have more space and I work much more comfortably.

2. Spatial arrangement — Apart from certain iOS text editors/word processors with an integrated Web browser, working on the iPad means uni-tasking. While this is a great concept in theory — ‘distraction-free writing environment’ and all that — in practice I feel a kind of constraint which I usually don’t feel when I’m working on the Mac. When I do translation work, in particular, I simply need to have the main screen split at least in two areas, one with the original document, the other with my translation. These two areas may be just two windows inside the same application or, more often, two separate documents open in different applications. Arranging such workspace on a Mac is trivial. On an iPad, not so much. And even if other tablets allow for such screen-splitting, and even if such a feature becomes common in future releases of iOS and other mobile OSes, I think the workspace will always be a bit more awkward, due to the smaller screen real estate of a tablet. In other words, I still very much need an interface with multiple overlapping windows, because while it’s not ‘multitasking’ in a machine sense, it’s just that kind of ‘human multitasking’ where you need to keep an eye on multiple elements appearing simultaneously on a (big) screen.

Don’t get me wrong, the iPad is an amazing device, and it’s been a great improvement for my ‘digital life’ ever since I bought one. For light work sessions, especially out of the office, is more than enough and I don’t need to always bring a laptop with me. It’s also fantastic for ‘spur-of-the-moment’ activities, like editing an image, checking RSS feeds and news, and so on. For me, it fits perfectly in conjunction with a personal computer. In my setup, it often participates in the spatial arrangement I was mentioning above, because I can ‘outsource’ to the iPad a few background tasks so as to limit the app switching on the Mac. When I need to monitor my email or some feeds, I just keep the iPad with Mail open by my side. Same when I want to quickly check a video on the Web. Often the iPad works as a digital dictionary when I’m translating and don’t want to switch too often between my translation workspace on the Mac and an online dictionary site like Wordreference.com.

And not to re-ignite the trite ‘consumption vs. creation’ debate, but I’d say that my consumption vs. creation usage ratio on the iPad is currently 70:30. Again, I’m not saying the iPad can’t be used for serious work (creative or otherwise); I’m saying that I’m not seeing myself switching to a tablet as my only computing device anytime soon. To do that, such tablet should — ironically, if you want — behave more like a traditional computer, at least in giving me more freedom to arrange my workspace. And a bigger screen wouldn’t hurt, either.

I may sometimes have a conservative viewpoint about technology, and an old-school approach, but I actually like to keep an open mind and try alternative methods to get things done. I prefer flexibility over too ingrained habits and I don’t rely much on fixed workflows. So, it’s not that I can’t use my iPad as my only work tool just because I haven’t tried too hard. I have tried, and realised that I simply cannot work as long and as comfortably on it as I do on a Mac laptop. (And for translation work, at least for how I work, using only an iPad is just too awkward and slows me down considerably.)

Worth mentioning, at this point, is a recent article by Benedict Evans, titled The irrelevance of Microsoft. In the closing paragraph, he writes:

Though it looks like we’ve passed the tipping point, this process isn’t going to be over quickly. PC sales aren’t going to zero this year. But the replacement cycle, already at 5 years, will lengthen further and further, more and more apps will move to mobile or the cloud, and for many people the PC will end up like the printer or fax – vestigial reminders of an older way of doing things.

While I don’t disagree with this assessment, I’m also thinking that the personal computer is still far from exiting the picture or becoming completely irrelevant. Sure, people are buying less PCs and more mobile devices, but what this fact tells me is that today people have a more fine-grained range of products to choose from than, say, 10-15 years ago. For those who purchased a computer a few years back only to use it as a consumption device (music, videos, photos, browsing the Web, doing some email, casual gaming, etc.), now products like the iPad, the Surface, the Nexus 7, the Kindle Fire HD, can be enough for that. These people can go from owning a laptop to just a tablet and never turn back.

A tablet might also be enough (most of the time, at least) for other people whose kind of work involves specific activities and not much app-hopping or switching.

But an interesting portion of other people, I believe, won’t leave the personal computer behind so soon. It’s not only a matter of applications (e.g. “I need to work with this specific software, and there’s no mobile equivalent for it”), but also and more importantly a matter of spatial arrangement and workspace organisation. Multi-touch interfaces and uni-tasking have certainly simplified things for many users, and have made computing way more accessible to less tech-savvy people. But mobile devices and operating systems still have some way to go to achieve the same kind of comfort and versatility of a personal computer’s interface. Advocates of the Post-PC era — or, more properly, the Sans-PC era — claim that PCs will ultimately become a niche market and will be used only by people who need to perform specialised tasks and use sophisticated, resource-intensive applications. I don’t know about that, really. Even for simpler tasks like writing, translating, and photo editing a personal computer is a more comfortable environment, if only for the bigger screen real estate and for the ability to keep an eye on different windows and workspaces without constantly switching from an app or task to another.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!