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The PC Is Dead, Long Live The Social PC

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The PC is 30 but IBM CTO Mark Dean, an engineer of the original IBM PC, says the post-PC era is upon us

IBM, already in the midst of celebrating its 100th anniversary, is about to hit another milestone: August 12 marks the 30th anniversary of the company’s 5150 Personal Computer, which ushered in the PC era.

Now one of the system’s creators is adding his voice to the chorus of people who believe the industry is quickly entering the post-PC era.

In a posting on the IBM Smarter Planet blog, Mark Dean, now the CTO of IBM’s Middle East and Africa unit, said he was proud of what IBM accomplished in fuelling the PC era, but added that that time is coming to an end. IBM executives saw it coming when they sold the PC business to Lenovo in 2005, and their predictions are coming to pass, Dean said.

Social Interaction Moves Beyond The PC

It is not necessarily only the rise of smartphones, tablets and other intelligent devices that are pushing the PC into the background, but by the social interaction that such devices enable.

“My primary computer now is a tablet,” Dean wrote in his blog post. “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. They’re going the way of the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records, CRT and incandescent light bulbs.”

Computing is becoming not only more personal, but also more social, he said.

“PCs are being replaced at the centre of computing not by another type of device – though there’s plenty of excitement about smart phones and tablets – but by new ideas about the role that computing can play in progress,” Dean wrote. “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.”

Agreement Of Peers

Dean’s comments echo those of some other industry executives.

In a blog post in October 2010, soon after he left Microsoft, Ray Ozzie (pictured) talked about the need for the software giant and other tech companies to understand where computing is headed and to embrace “that which is technologically inevitable” – a future of varied devices connected to the cloud. The days of the PC-centric environment, which helped fuel Microsoft’s success, are declining as the use of mobile devices and cloud computing rises, implied Ozzie, who had been Microsoft’s chief software architect.

At the unveiling of the iPad 2 in March, Apple CEO Steve Jobs also talked about a post-PC world dominated by such devices as smartphones and tablets. Some other vendors view tablets as something new in the PC market, but that “is not the right approach to this”, Jobs said.

“These are post-PC devices that need to be easier to use than a PC, more intuitive,” he said. “The hardware and software need to intertwine more than they do on a PC.”

Era Of The Evolving PC?

Not everyone is buying into the idea of a post-PC world. Intel executives have pointed to the continued growth in notebook PC sales when talking about the overall health of the market, and are touting their ultrabook concept – very light and very thin notebooks that offer the performance of traditional laptops and features found in tablets – as the next advancement in mobile PCs. They are predicting that by the end of 2012, 40 percent of notebooks sold will be ultrabooks.

For its part, Microsoft officials see the story of PCs being one of evolution rather than decline. In a post on The Official Microsoft Blog, Frank Shaw, corporate vice president of corporate communications at Microsoft, talked about IBM’s first PCs running Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system as the beginning of the PC era.

Now, Shaw wrote, Microsoft is extending its reach beyond PCs and into other devices, the Internet and the cloud.

“People sometimes ask me about what Microsoft thinks about the post-PC era (I prefer to think of it as the PC-plus era, since there will be 400 million PCs sold worldwide this coming year, but that’s semantics),” he wrote. “It’s fairly straightforward. We continue to build great software, and our software’s value is expressed in the consumer and enterprise devices and services we deliver to our customers.”

IBM Left At The Right Time

Worldwide PC sales continue to be sluggish. In June, Gartner analysts said PC sales would be slower in 2011 than initially predicted as consumers continue to show tepid demand and tablet sales grow. In July, Gartner said that in the second quarter, PC sales worldwide grew 2.3 percent, slower than in previous quarters. The market research firm initially had predicted growth of 6.7 percent.

IBM’s Dean said his company got out of the PC business at the right time.

“It may be odd for me to say this, but I’m also proud IBM decided to leave the personal computer business in 2005, selling our PC division to Lenovo,” he wrote. “While many in the tech industry questioned IBM’s decision to exit the business at the time, it’s now clear that our company was in the vanguard of the post-PC era.”