Revolutions are chaotic: They upset the status quo, and leave old ways of doing things behind. The PC, once the spearhead of the personal digital revolution, may seem antiquated alongside sexy new tablets and smartphones. In reality, however, the PC is an intimate participant in the current revolution, changing its own nature to respond to new usage models and a new generation of users. If anything, Microsoft’s recent announcement of the Surface - a Windows 8 PC posing as a tablet - demonstrates the PC’s flexibility and relevance in the modern digital era.
The new computing revolution is upon us, driven by a legion of users and developers creating new ways of interacting with data, and with one another, in an always-connected world. And the new PC has stepped up to address the needs of users and application builders who have never known a world without the Internet. Apple and Microsoft are creating uniform operating environments, enabling a seamless transition from mobile phone to PC or Mac, all connected via cloud services. Windows 8 is leading the way, with the same OS core at the heart of Windows Phone 8, Windows RT, and Windows 8 on the PC.
The PC is undergoing its most radical makeover since the advent of the IBM PC three decades ago. Pundits like to call this the "post-PC era," but the PC remains the hub of our digital lives. Call it a PC, call it an Ultrabook, call it Surface--it’s still a personal computer to the core.
The New Revolution
Always-on connectivity, the cloud, and easy mobility define today’s personal technology revolution. Users have had a role in the revolution, embracing digital media consumption instead of viewing digital devices as mere tools. Users of smartphones and tablets--in particular, iPhone and iPad owners--blazed the trail. As in the early age of the personal computer (before the IBM PC), the nascent smartphone market was highly fragmented, with diverging views of what users wanted. These days, after the rise of the iPhone, almost all phones look startlingly similar. Having a data plan with your smartphone is now mainstream; it wasn’t always that way.
After a slow start, PC makers are now embracing the change. Inspired by the MacBook Air, Intel’s Ultrabook program is driving mainstream adoption of ultrathin, ultraportable PCs that make far fewer compromises than the netbooks of recent memory. The majority of these designs--including Apple’s--are based on Intel hardware.
The new generation of Ultrabooks has been relatively slow to adopt the always-connected model, as surprisingly few units are shipping with built-in cellular broadband. As true 4G networks become more widespread, that might change, especially as cloud storage becomes more integral to the operating system. Apple is already pursuing this idea with iCloud, and Microsoft will be integrating its SkyDrive service into Windows 8.
Ultrabooks are only one response to the changing market, though. Microsoft’s new Surface tablets show how PCs are evolving in other directions. The Surface RT model is locked into Microsoft’s app store, much as Apple’s iPad is locked into iTunes. But the Surface Pro is really an ultrathin PC in a tablet skin, with a fully functional Windows desktop and the ability to run most Windows applications.
Cloudy, With a Chance of Apps
While the notion of running software from the cloud isn’t new, it is gathering steam. Google has led the charge, and Google Docs has seen rapid adoption. Microsoft has been pitching Office 365 (a collection of hosted productivity apps) to businesses. Even games are running on the cloud, with companies such as Gaikai and OnLive offering games on cloud servers and delivering interactive streams to user desktops.
Unified Operating Environments
Both Apple and Microsoft are driving toward unified operating environments across smartphone, tablet, and personal computing platforms. In some ways, Microsoft is ahead of the curve. Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8 will offer nearly identical user experiences. With the release of iOS 6 and Mac OS X Mountain Lion, Apple is taking another step along the road to user-experience integration.
Not all users are on board with unified environments, though. Windows 8 seems to be particularly polarizing. Running the Metro interface on a desktop system, or even a laptop PC, seemed to be a baffling decision on Microsoft's part, until the announcement of the Surface. Windows 8 and the Surface are closely intertwined, and it’s clearly the direction Microsoft wants to take the operating system--and its users.
The Apple Factor
Apple’s huge success with the iPad, iPhone, and MacBook Air has prodded traditional PC manufacturers to explore new designs. Although Apple hasn’t significantly eroded Windows’ market share on the desktop, Apple’s laptop sales have gained ground. The current generation of iMacs has established the standard for all-in-one systems, while the MacBook Air is the poster child for ultrathin, mobile computers. The popularity of the Air likely spawned Ultrabooks--the skinny, lightweight laptops that Intel is currently pushing PC manufacturers to build. Over the next month or two, Intel anticipates a wave of Ultrabook releases, with dozens of new models flooding the market.
The new MacBook Pro with Retina display brings 2880-by-1800-pixel resolution--which translates to a pixel density of 220 pixels per inch--to Apple's premium laptop line. PC manufacturers aren’t as far behind as they seem to be, though: The new crop of 13-inch Ultrabooks with 1080p displays offer 160 ppi. It’s clear that the bar has been set.
On the software side, Apple’s AirPlay, which allows easy streaming of content to home entertainment systems, has defined ease of use for wireless displays; Intel’s WiDi (a wireless laptop-to-TV connection) has been less successful. At this year’s E3 gaming trade show, Microsoft announced SmartGlass, which aims to accomplish the same goal but will use bidirectional streaming so that it isn't just a one-way street.
The Laptop Landscape
Intel’s Ivy Bridge processor delivers mainstream x86 CPU performance at a much lower power budget than previous generations of CPUs. While Ultrabooks first saw the light of day with the earlier Sandy Bridge CPUs, it’s Ivy Bridge that truly delivers on the promise of longer battery life and new PC shapes and sizes, most of them sleeker, lighter, and more efficient than past designs. At the recent Computex trade show, laptop makers showed off a plethora of PC designs--some radical, others consisting of only minor changes to existing designs. The Asus Taichi, for example, is a laptop that has a second touchscreen on the outside and works as a tablet when it's closed.
Companies are also experimenting with exotic materials to reduce weight. Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Gigabyte’s X11 both use carbon fiber as the main chassis material. Toshiba is readying a 21:9-aspect-ratio system with a native resolution of 1792 by 768 pixels, which can present widescreen movies in their native format.
It’s unclear which designs will win consumers' hearts, but it’s good to see serious experimentation after years of boring, 15.6-inch look-alikes.
Despite the trend toward mobility, desktop PCs are still going strong. But they too are changing rapidly. All-in-one systems are becoming a larger part of the mix, and manufacturers are experimenting with other variations. The Lenovo IdeaCentre A720, which will ship later this year, offers a multitouch display that can lie completely horizontal; you might think of it as a big brother to Microsoft’s newly announced Surface tablets. Ultrasmall units are also becoming popular in offices, homes, and industrial settings. Inspired by the interest in the Raspberry Pi (the tiny, supercheap PC-like device built around a system-on-chip and running Linux), Intel is building its NUC (Next Unit of Computing), which carries an Ivy Bridge-class dual-core CPU in a tiny, 4-inch-square case smaller than the Apple TV.
Even the most hard-core PC users, including serious gamers and performance enthusiasts, are looking beyond the familiar PC box. The Alienware X51, for instance, packs fairly serious PC gaming muscle into an Xbox-size chassis.
What Is a PC?
All of this experimentation forces us to reexamine what a personal computer is, and what it could become.
Obviously, a desk-side tower with attached display and peripherals is a PC. All-in-one machines running Windows certainly qualify, as do most laptops. But what if the device is a tablet running Windows RT, Microsoft’s upcoming OS for ARM-based systems? No one would call the iPad a PC, yet the Microsoft Surface RT and similar Windows RT tablets will include some flavor of Microsoft Office--an application that’s strongly associated with PCs.
An Ultrabook running Windows is certainly a PC. But what about a Chromebook running Chrome OS? It’s almost always connected to the cloud, and doesn’t run Windows--but it’s certainly capable of running applications that most business PC users would recognize. And the new Surface Pro may be extremely thin and light, but it’s a PC all the way down to its x86 CPU and its ability to run most Windows applications.
As the PC evolves, we'll see the emergence of new products that push the definition of the personal computer. In some cases, hardware that most of us wouldn’t call a PC will run applications traditionally associated with personal computers, just like those Windows RT tablets that run Office.
If the new PC generation simply consisted of experiments like Lenovo’s IdeaCentre A720 and marketing initiatives like the Ultrabook, we’d see the PC as merely evolving with the times. Windows 8 and Microsoft’s Surface tablets, however, lay out a different vision of the PC’s destiny. Apple may have defined what the tablet could be with the iPad, but Microsoft is defining the future soul of the PC.