The prophet has spoken, and his words provide both hope and fear to the computer world.
In front of a rapt audience of tech executives at an industry conference on Tuesday night, Apple maestro Steve Jobs predicted the end of the PC era.
And what will replace the device that has transformed every aspect of business and society over the past 25 years? Well, it just so happens that Jobs believes the next phase of the computer revolution will be dominated by a device that looks a lot like the iPad tablet he introduced so successfully two months ago.
You could write off Jobs’ prediction as just some more of the infectious hyperbole that seems to mark every pronouncement the Apple founder makes. But if you subscribe to the mantra of another great American visionary, Abraham Lincoln, who famously remarked that “the best way to predict your future is to create it,” Jobs’ comments could quickly turn into reality.
“When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that’s what you needed on the farms,” Jobs said at the D: All Things Digital conference. “But as people moved more towards urban centres, people started to get into cars.
“I think PCs are going to be like trucks. Less people will need them. And this is going to make some people uneasy.” This may sound like a crazy rant to people who haven’t used tablets. Their portability and touch screen interface offer an easier, more intuitive and altogether more pleasant way to surf the web and interact with media content of all kinds.
Other more complex tasks, such as video editing and teleconferencing will soon become possible with improved processors, while hybridised and dockable tablets will offer all the advantages of keyboard and mouse controls.
Since the success of the iPad, such an evolution of the dominant computer form factor seems long overdue. While manufacturers can make PCs faster and faster, and pack in ever more features, consumers have realised that for the usual tasks of surfing the web, sending emails, doing things on Facebook and watching YouTube clips they don’t really need the newest super-charged data crunchers.
That’s what led to the explosion in low-cost netbooks in recent years, and to the decline in laptop and desktop purchases. It’s also the dynamic that will fuel the surge in tablet computers, according to tech analyst Carmi Levi.
“It’s pretty darn clear that putting everything in a box and keeping it isolated there is very much a creation of the 80s,” he said.
“The net has rendered that model obsolete very, very quickly.” It’s not just the advances in computer hardware that are making this generational technology shift all but inevitable. It’s also being driven by the increased ubiquity and speed of Internet access, which within a few years will allow people almost everywhere in the developed world fast and wireless access wherever they may be.
Jobs acknowledged that the iPad, which has sold 2 million units in its first 60 days on the market, may not win the new platform war. There’s certainly lots of competition.
Google, of course, has readied its own operating system for tablets, which Dell debuted last month on its Streak device. HP is also coming out with a tablet, while up-and-coming Taiwanese computer maker Asus unveiled its own Microsoft-powered gizmo earlier this week.
Last week, the non-profit organisation One Laptop Per Child, whose initiative to launch the 100-dollar laptop for children in developing countries spurred major computer makers to come up with their own cheap netbooks, announced its new target — the 100-dollar tablet to debut next year.
Even Intel, a company synonymous with the rise of the PC, has seen the writing on the wall, announcing a new chip architecture for tablets, which marks its largest-ever deviation from its traditional PC products.
But while companies like Intel and Microsoft may be threatened by the rise of a new form factor, it will be good for consumers and a computer industry hitting the limits of a mature market. “Computer makers should be thanking their lucky stars,” Levi says. “The new tablet form factor will give them a powerful hit.”