Is that it for the PC?

A vintage IBM PC

The latest Mac OS is the first that can only be bought from an app store, from a tightly-integrated, locked-down, official source. I reckon that’s pretty much it for the free-range, open platform we call the PC.

Googling myself the other day, I found this article from The Guardian nine years ago.

It’s about the unexpected persistence of the Personal Computer. My point was that the general purpose lump on your desk was already then a dinosaur, overdue for replacement by:

a swarm of gadgets variously attached to your person, colonising your home (at about ankle height), discreetly re-stocking your fridge or representing your interests on the net while you sleep.

The anti-PC forces were then strong, or at least numerous. You had thin-client efforts from Oracle, Sun and various startups, a bunch of clunky ‘Internet-on-your-TV’ products (got some of those in my loft), WAP stuff and the first generation of web apps that offloaded your PC’s functions to the net. So, even then, things didn’t look great for the PC.

But, I proposed, the PC persisted because it offered us a kind of autonomy and control that was profoundly liberating. The PC (in its various flavours) had, after all, entirely changed the world for a lot of us about twenty years previously, precisely because it was a blank slate, an autonomous zone. Do you remember the rather daunting feeling of powering up a new computer in those days? The “What do I do now?” feeling that forced you to a) learn a programming language, b) publish a fanzine or c) write a screenplay – because there simply wasn’t anything else to do. I said, back then:

…for the young, the PC is a liberated zone, a place of permission, autonomy, creativity and of almost unlimited possibilities. Very few man-made things can ever have carried so much meaning, condensed so much value and potential for action.

But now, nearly a decade after that article and thirty years after the revolution began, it looks like the PC may finally have reached its sell-by date. The whole complicated, liberating architecture is collapsing. Steve Jobs used the phrase “the post-PC era” in his keynote on Monday. A BBC manager told me the other day: “we’ve done some research, the PC’s finished as a platform”.

And its replacement doesn’t look anything like as liberating. That ‘swarm’ of devices has arrived but without the messy, unfinished, frankly out-of-control software/hardware ecosystem that produced the generations of iconoclastic hackers and creators busy remaking the world for us in business, politics and culture in 2011.

It drove us all crazy while we fought with it to install printers and format newsletters and debug compilers but we’ll remember the stack of hardware and software that makes up the PC as a place of enormous freedom – to tinker, to modify, to fix, to build and invent.

And will the new, closed platforms evolve into sophisticated tools for creation and invention? Probably. But will they also limit our access to the hardware, close off the OS and force us to add new functionality and content via monopoly commercial gateways? Yes they will.

And what kind of creative culture will emerge from the next thirty years of gorgeous, integrated, properly-finished but utterly closed platforms? Will these post-PC platforms diminish the impatient, inventive hacker mindset that the old platforms produced? Or will the geeks just invent a new one and move on?


  1. I share your worry: yet, we also need to confront the very real truth that technology has got really complicated. In order to do the equivalent of “10 PRINT “Steve is great”; 20 GOTO 10″ today, you need to understand, to varying degrees, how a scripting language works or how a webserver or FTP program works, or how to make an icon appear on a phone, etc. It’s nowhere near as easy as just hitting “run”.

    That said, I wouldn’t give up hope yet. On my Android phone, I’ve discovered Tasker, a neat little program that allows you to tweak the phone to do all kinds of things. Send me a text when I have my headphones in, and I’ve programmed my phone to read that text out to me. (If my headphones aren’t in, it quite rightly keeps schtum.) Plug in the cable to my speakers or my car stereo, and it automatically puts the volume level nice and high; yet, plug in my headphones and it resets the volume down to a non-deafening level. Use the phone after 11.00pm, and it won’t rotate the screen any more (since I’ve programmed it not to at times when I might be in bed). And so on.

    It doesn’t just extend to phones: my girlfriend was amazed last night when, on hitting ‘mute’ on the telly, it started showing subtitles instead. I’d reprogrammed the remote control to turn them on – as well as added a ‘radio’ button that does the 5 arcanely complex bits of digging in menus to display the radio channels.

    The age of the tinkerer is still upon us: and it’s never been easier to get your gadgets to do some amazing things.

  2. You give me hope, James! And, of course, I didn’t mention the whole Arduino-Linux-3D printer-gamer-amateur rocketry-artificial life-nexus and I guess that’s where all the tinkerer action is these days…

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