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IBM: After 30 years, PC going the way of the vacuum tube and typewriter

IBM: After 30 years, PC going the way of the vacuum tube and typewriter

"When I helped design the PC, I didn't think I'd live long enough to witness its decline" - IBM's Mark Dean

Thirty years ago, IBM created the first personal computer running Microsoft's MS-DOS. Today, IBM and [Microsoft] seem to have very different views on the future of the PC.

IBM CTO Mark Dean of the company's Middle East and Africa division, one of a dozen IBM engineers who designed that first machine unveiled Aug. 12, 1981, says PCs are "going the way of the vacuum tube, [typewriter], vinyl records, CRT and incandescent light bulbs."

IN PICTURES: [Evolution of the PC]

IBM, of course, sold its PC division to Lenovo in 2005. Dean, in a [blog post], writes that "I, personally, have moved beyond the PC as well. My primary computer now is a tablet. C. "When I helped design the PC, I didn't think I'd live long enough to witness its decline. But, while PCs will continue to be much-used devices, they're no longer at the leading edge of computing."

Dean's remarks continue a debate over whether we are now in a so-called "post-PC" era, in which [smartphones] and [tablets] are replacing desktops and laptops. Not surprisingly, Microsoft -- seller of 400 million Windows 7 licenses -- isn't a fan of that term.

"I prefer to think of it as the PC-plus era," Microsoft corporate communications VP [Frank Shaw writes in a blog post] of his own.

In Microsoft's vision, it's the PC plus Bing, Windows Live, Windows phones, Office 365, Xbox, Skype and more.

A VISUAL HISTORY: [Windows after 25 years]

"Our software lights up Windows PCs, Windows Phones and Xbox-connected entertainment systems, and a whole raft of other devices with embedded processors from gasoline pumps to ATMs to the latest soda vending machines, to name just a few," Shaw writes. "In some cases we build our own hardware (Xbox, Kinect), while in most other cases we work with hardware partners on PCs, phones and other devices to ensure a great end-to-end experience that optimizes the combination of hardware and software."

Shaw notes that the [Apple] II, Commodore PET and other devices preceded the first IBM 5150 PC running MS-DOS but says it was the IBM and Microsoft partnership that "was a defining moment for our industry" and fulfilled "the dream of a PC on every desk and in every home."

The first IBM PC even [predates the Macintosh and Windows], which launched in 1984 and 1985, respectively. Shaw says he still owns his first computer, the IBM Personal Portable booting MS-DOS version 5.1.

Although Microsoft's role in the daily lives of personal computer users [could be diminished] by the rise of iPhones, [Android] phones and iPads, IBM's Dean says it's not simply a new type of device that is replacing the PC as "the center of computing."

"PCs are being replaced at the center of computing not by another type of device — though there's plenty of excitement about smartphones and tablets — but by new ideas about the role that computing can play in progress," Dean writes. "These days, it's becoming clear that innovation flourishes best not on devices but in the social spaces between them, where people and ideas meet and interact. It is there that computing can have the most powerful impact on economy, society and people's lives."

While that sounds pretty vague, Dean notes that IBM has boosted its profit margins since selling off its PC division with a strategy of exiting commodity businesses and "expanding in higher-value markets." One example: IBM's [Watson], newly crowned Jeopardy champion.

"We conduct fundamental scientific research, design some of the world's most advanced chips and computers, provide software that companies and governments run on, and offer business consulting, IT services and solutions that enable our clients to transform themselves continuously, just like we do," Dean writes.

For all the debate over whether this is a "post-PC" era, it's clear more people today own Windows computers and Macs than smartphones and tablets, and our new mobile devices are complementing desktops and laptops rather than replacing them.

It's hard to beat the convenience of an easy-to-use, Internet-connected device in one's pocket, but many tasks are cumbersome without a full, physical keyboard. Even social media, which seems as "post-PC" as it gets upon first glance, requires a lot of typing.

Some people envision a future where a smartphone is the hub of all your computing needs, and simply hooks into a dock for those rare times you want a bigger screen, mouse and keyboard. Others talk about a future where any surface, whether a wall or table, is transformed into a touch-screen computer with a snap of one's fingers.

For now, though, most people making these proclamations are typing their blog posts on PCs.

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: [www.twitter.com/jbrodkin]

[Read more about data center] in Network World's Data Center section.

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