The New York Times suggests, vaguely, that today on the eve of the iPad 3 announcement the future of the PC looks dim. "As New iPad Debut Nears, Some See Decline of PCs" is its hand-wavy position on the matter, with a first paragraph quoting Apple CEO Tim Cook pondering "the day will come when devices like the Apple iPad outsell traditional personal computers." Forget the sales figures—it's not simply about how many of these things are bought ... that's almost irrelevant. In far more important ways the tablet era is already here, and the PC's relevance may end sooner than you think. It's all but over.
The argument starts with the iPad 3's strongly rumored super-high-resolution screen at 2,408 by 1,536 pixels on a 9.7-inch LCD. That's around the level needed to qualify it as a "retina" display, meaning that at typical user-to-screen distances, your fallible human eyeball isn't physically capable of spotting the pixels. For all intents and purposes, your brain will see the iPad 3's screen as equivalent in quality to a (glowing) printed page from a glossy magazine. It's a screen tech that probably surpasses the pixel resolution of your laptop, your home PC, and definitely your fancy full 40-inch HDTV. The screen alone is an innovation that may enable a whole new approach to e-publishing, at an optical quality that bests printed text in books or magazines, and it could even change gaming—imagine holding this portable high-res unit in your hands, with the characters of the game reacting to the way you move the device.
Then look at innovations like the new Square Register iPad app, bringing smart user-customizable digital cash register powers to small businesses across the U.S.—enabling a radical makeover of the way small cafes and so on process payments. It's cheap, powerful, adds tangible value through its built-in analytics, and comes with Square's industry-shaking low payment processing fees. Sure, there are a clutch of solutions like this available for PCs, and some stores certainly do run PCs or laptops as their cash register/EFTPOS/inventory tool ... but Square's system has a low price on its side, a highly intuitive interface, and great simplicity. All of that is specifically enabled by the tablet OS and its incredibly natural user interface, meaning that even the most tech-averse store owner can in effect build their own customized payments app.
Meanwhile, motion-control and gestural full touch control is the purview of tablets, although laptop touchpads incorporate a lesser version of it. Mobile webcam tech coupled with specialized apps for image recognition (or even, shock, horror, QR code reading) are a match made in tablet heaven, enabling all sorts of amazing new businesses. Voice control with location awareness is the stomping ground of Apple's Siri, and Google's upcoming Assistant rival—not systems you'll typically use on a PC.
In contrast, check out the clutch of new laptops that have been revealed at this week's CeBIT show in Germany. Much attention is given to the new ultrabook class, but these machines really aren't innovative anymore—they're mere clones (in some cases almost down to the millimeter) of a recipe that Apple dreamed up for its MacBook Air. Ditching spinning drives and integrating gesture-sensing touchpads and webcams, the Air and its ilk represent the last gasp of laptop tech, refined and polished to post-modern minimalist perfection because there's almost nothing there apart from a screen, pointing device, and keyboard. There's nowhere really novel for the laptop to go from here. The desktop PC hasn't really been innovated in decades: Processors have gotten faster, graphics cards have got cleverer, and drives have gotten bigger or switched to solid state, but they're physically similar in design, and practically similar in use. There's no revolution going on on the desktop either.
It would seem that most of the innovation in computing is happening in tablets, partly because they're a more flexible platform from the get-go, with pleasantly low reliance on legacy computing paradigms, and partly because the innovation well for traditional PCs is all but dried up. Where mobile PCs can be innovated are in their OS's and user interfaces. But remember that Apple is planning to bring more of its experience learned from the iPad and iPhone to its Mac computing platform, and Microsoft is trying the same with Metro in its upcoming Windows 8. And as an ironic signal of how stuck in the past the traditional computing paradigm is, one of the current most popular questions on the help forum is "how do I disable Metro?"
As for the biggest criticism leveled against the tablet paradigm, it really doesn't hold water. People say you can't use a tablet for what you would traditionally use a computer for. But that's letting the past influence the future too much—much of what we use computers for, and the systems they use to let us work, emerged simultaneously with their own development (could IBM, way back when it was a key player in innovating the PC have imagined Angry Birds, Facebook, PowerPoint, or Folding at Home? Nope).
Computers are about getting things done, and tablets enable wholly new ways to access and process new and old data—to "get things done"—and over time these new ways of using tablets will replace the old ways of using PCs. It's as simple as that, same tasks (and more tasks)—different tool. And we're right at the beginning of the tablet computing era, with bigger and better things yet to come.
What this criticism is is really a failure of imagination—a "not invented here" argument that ignores the innovations to come from the tablet PC genre that we've not yet even imagined. Proof positive that it's baseless comes from a recent survey from IDG Connect that says 12% of owners of iPads in enterprise no longer use their laptop, preferring a tablet instead. 54% more said the iPad had partly replaced their laptop, and 6% of folks surveyed even said it had completely replaced their desktop PC (an additional 33% of respondees to this question admitted it had partly replaced it). And this is the absolute traditional stomping ground of the PC—at work, poring over Excel sheets, or putting together PowerPoint slides.
No one's saying the PC is dead, or that sales are going to quickly dwindle (though there's some evidence that sales erosion is already taking place). The pocket calculator, for example, still sells millions of units yearly, decades after being supplanted for most uses. The PC is simply too entrenched in commercial and home life in the developed world to simply disappear overnight. But what we're saying is that its glory time is over, and its importance as an innovation hub—enabling new exploitations and whole new billion-dollar industries—is soon to go. Tablets won't replace every use case for the PC instantly, and for a short while hybrid solutions like Asus' Transformer may have a role to play.
But stare into the shiny screen of an iPad 3 tomorrow, and tell us that the future isn't already here.