Lowenstein's View: Where are we in the 'post-PC' era?

Mark Lowenstein

Apple announcement events are always a good benchmark for where we are in the industry. Yesterday, Apple announced the iPhone SE and a smaller iPad Pro, plus lowered prices on the Watch and the iPad Mini.  There were no huge surprises, mostly lots of nice improvements across a pretty broad swath of hardware and software.

The iPhone SE to me is thematically similar to what Apple has done with the iPad Pro. The company is moving away from the one size and one price fits all approach of pre-2014, to developing versions for different market segments.  The major difference across the iPhone and iPad (mini to Pro) lines is screen size, and, to a more minor extent, processing power. From a feature and functionality perspective, there's not that much of difference from one iPhone or one iPad to the next. One indirect effect of the iPhone SE is that it could help iPad sales, as the use cases on SE vs. iPad, for example, are more pronounced than between iPhone 6+/6s+ and the iPad.   And iPad Pro, I believe, is Apple's sandbox for addressing the Surface and tinkering with what a hybrid tablet/PC might look like.

More broadly, we are at an interesting moment in the "Post PC Era", a term the late Steve Jobs coined when he introduced the iPad in June, 2010. My view is that we're perhaps weaving in a bit of a different direction than Jobs envisioned. First, PC and laptop sales, while not exactly a growth market, remain relatively robust. With the exception of a few verticals and some job types, the tablet has not replaced the PC. It is still mainly ancillary to the phone or PC, and is a fantastic content and media consumption and Web surfing device. Phil Schiller talks of the iPad Pro as the "ultimate PC replacement", but I still really don't see it as an effective productivity tool. And, sales of tablets in the consumer space have plateaued some, because of the shrinking delta between large-screened versions of phones and smaller screened versions of tablets.

Second, we're at an interesting experimentation stage with regards to PCs. Cloud, or Web-centric PC, are starting to have some pretty good success. These devices, unburdened by heavy processing requirements, native software, and crapware, are for half the price of an iPad Pro. Additionally, products such as the Surface Pro that combine the best of the tablet and the PC are coming along quite nicely. Product teams at Microsoft, Samsung, Apple, and some of the legacy PC OEMs are playing around with lots of different constructs of how to meld the worlds of keyboard, touch screens, and pens.

Third, with regard to the phone-tablet-PC debate and even the 'mobile first' concept, I think it is less of an either/or than we perhaps thought it would be. Look at the steady growth and improvement in the quality of Web apps and responsive design, where content adapts to the screen of the moment. Even the term 'mobile first', which was originally defined as designing for mobile before designing for the Web, is becoming outmoded. Yes, the smartphone (which really should be called a pocket computer) is the always-on device we have with us nearly all the time, capable of so many functions, and more conveniently than other computing devices. Using a smartphone is becoming increasingly transactional in nature: read the message, order the Uber, pay for the coffee, check the traffic.

Fourth, I am sensing that there might be a bit of a screen rationalization/backlash over the next few years. The relatively tepid (compared to expectations) sales of smart watches, the slowing growth of tablet sales, and the fits and starts of wearables are indicators. Not only is it costly to buy and own all these devices (they break, they get outdated, the accessories are a pain to carry around), but it's a lot to just maintain. Make sure they're charged, apps updated, content synced across devices, cases and bands purchased, don't kill the data plan, etc., etc.

The watch or fitness wearable could become a breakout device if it becomes a much better companion to the phone. Symbiotic, not ancillary. The tablet and PC might become combined as progress is made on form factor and UI.

Finally, despite the screen 'consolidation' point in the above paragraph, we should consider the role of the screen currently known as the TV in all this. As content moves a la carte, becomes cloud- and app-based, less linear, with better search/discovery capabilities and greater interactivity, the TV starts looking more like a large-screened PC or tablet. It will be less fixed to a particular room, and hopefully less tied to a 'box', be it the cable box or OTT device. Content will be mainly in the cloud, accessed from any device. Images, or content, will be projected onto the screen (or, with augmented reality, the surface) of your choice at a given moment.

Nearly six years after the release of the iPad and nearly nine years since the introduction of the iPhone, we might be coming to another fork in the road.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem.  Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein. 

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