The post-PC era already is over

That was fast, if it ever was. Don't blink or the so-called PC era will pass you by. For years, I've called it the cloud-connected device era because of the deeper meaning: Context. But more appropriately, the new epoch is contextual computing, which really extends a transition underway since the World Wide Web opened to the masses about 20 years ago. During the two earlier computing eras, mainframes and PCs, location defined the user. During the contextual computing era, the user defines location. If you listen to analysts obsessed with selling services to enterprises or companies like Apple, post-PC is all about devices. It's anything but.

Context is everything today. I started writing about the concept circa 2004, borrowing from my boss of the day -- Michael Gartenberg. The concept is simple: People are satisfied with what they've got on hand. In context of the airport, a hand-held game console is good enough, while at home the person prefers Xbox and big-screen PC. But because of the cloud connected to an increasing number of mobile devices, context is a much bigger, broader and badder technology trend.

Changing Roles

Within context, there are contextual layers often misunderstood by companies making products or analysts predicting trends. I started writing about these nuances years ago, but suddenly see how post-PC advocates miss their importance. For example, in October 2007 I explained:

As mobility increases, people's roles change; they are more defined by interaction than location. Fifteen to 20 years ago, location more defined personal and professional roles. Terminals or PCs connected to servers tethered the professional role to the workplace. But increased mobile causes roles to change by context. An employee could go from product manager to parent, in a single interaction, without ever leaving the living room.

Stated differently six months earlier:

In the heyday of mainframes, location defined people's work roles and how they interacted with technology. The work day ended and employees went home. Today, role is often defined by interaction rather than location-- and the technology as well. Mobile device proliferation enables the overlapping of roles, but the technology tends to be highly decentralized. Mobile workers carry cell phones, PDAs and laptops -- with different data repositories -- that facilitate the commingling of personal and professional information and behavior.

The device's importance begins and ends with context, which interaction and not location defines. That's little changed in five years. But cloud services' role has increased exponentially, shifting data storage online and enabling more computing scenarios independent of location.

Particularly in the United States, where the economy is today more about services than manufacturing, location less defines work roles than ever. What so-called knowledge worker does a 9-to-5 job anymore? Many companies expect employees to take some work home or to be available -- to change roles -- anytime, anywhere. Similarly, workers expect, many demand, access to personal stuff, whether content or relationships, on the job. C`mon, tell me you never used Facebook, Google+, LinkedIN or Twitter at the workplace, and I'll call you a liar. Texting on the job, anyone?

Relationship is another contextual nuance. There is the aformentioned changing work and home roles. But there is connection to others, which thanks to cloud services and apps is location-independent. Interaction that starts face to face continues via text message when people separate and then goes on social networks. People interaction is no longer location, or even device, dependent.

Better BYOD

Analysts chatter lots about the BYOD -- bring your own device to work -- movement. But there's nothing new. This trend is decades old. How did the first cell phones, PCs, PDAs and other devices arrive at big businesses? Through the employee backdoor. I have written about this behavior for as long reporting on tech -- 18 years. What's different now is context. Because of the cloud and the ability for content and communications to roam, people want to access their stuff anytime, anywhere and on anything.

The cloud is all about context. Content follows users everywhere, independent of device. Your music is available anytime, anywhere, on anything. You watch a movie in one context, sitting in man chair at the mall on a smartphone and resume on the big-screen TV at home. Content is the same, but context and device change. BYOD advocates often miss this point.

Too often in technology development meaning is lost. What means most to the consumer? What is the emotional quotient? Movies with appealing storyline, excitement, effects or actor matter. Music is hugely personal, as are the artists whom listeners idolize. Then there are the photos people take of others, or places or things, that evoke time, place or relationship. Finally, there are the people connections themselves. Context unifies them all, and the current computing era is evocative.

Sour Apple

Apple doesn't understand context well. The company is too control-oriented, seeking to create context where it often isn't. The company is a great seller of aspiration -- releasing pretty products wrapped in marketing that convinces would-be buyers life will better with Product X, Y or Z. Often the underlying aspirational quality is uniqueness -- of being special, for being among the select few. Yes, Apple captures context when showing people connecting together through services like FaceTime. But the company is a late-comer to the contextual cloud and offers no social reach, relying on third-party services like Facebook and Tumblr to connect people.

What Apple did right with iPhone, and later iPad, is make devices more human. In 2007, iPhone supercharged the smartphone category with a more natural user interface. Suddenly, there was a new way to interact with a handset that was seemingly magical. Humanness made the original iPhone stand apart from all competitors, and Apple used a variety of sensors to imbue the quality. Touch, and its intimacy, and the way the handset responds to proximity gives it human quality.

iPad extends the concept. In June 2010 confessional, "I was wrong about Apple iPad":

iPad offers fresh functionality: Immersion. I find there are fewer reading distractions, and content is better presented than on a laptop and browser. I'm more focused and retain more of what I read. For reasons not easily explained, I find myself more thoroughly reading iBooks than defaulting to the skimming I sometimes do with physical books. Part of this immersive experience is the technology, but also how iPad is used. Apple's tablet is a sit down and focus device, as much because of size and shape as screen and user interface. The totality -- physical design and software benefits -- is immersion.

I tell you, Apple CEO Tim Cook doesn't understand context at all, nor anyone else on his leadership team. They're too obsessed with selling devices and keeping margins high, riding the BYOD wave into the enterprise without understanding why the trend is so much more significant today. The presumption: People want Apple devices because they're better designed, easier to use. No. Context is the driver -- getting access to things that are meaningful anytime, anywhere and on anything. BYOD is not about devices but context.

Apple's recent tablet travails show just how true this is. In August 2011, Apple had overwhelming tablet share in the United States -- 81 percent. A year later, iPad had dropped to 52 percent share, with Android tablets rising to 48 percent from 15 percent. Globally, during third quarter, according to IDC, Apple's tablet share was 50.4 percent -- that's down from 68.2 percent in Q2. Go back even six months, and post-PC device-obsessed analysts forecast iPad's dominance for another four or five years. That's PC-era thinking, when the device mattered more. Apple's early magic making iPhone and iPad more responsive is easily imitated. Imbuing devices with humanness is no sure success long term. Cloud context isn't device dependent and matters more.

Google Now

In preparing this analysis I started looking at Google from a fresh perspective, suddenly realizing how completely the company gets contextual computing -- or stated differently, contextual cloud computing. Context is in the corporate DNA. Overture, which Yahoo acquired in 2003, invented the business model Google perfected, selling keywords and ads around search. Hell, it's called contextual advertising.

The search and information giant started making key contextual cloud investments in the late Noughties, with 2008 releases Android (September/October) and Chrome (December) being among the most important platforms. But there are plenty of others. Among them:

  • Gmail beta started in March/April 2004. Late-starter Google now has the most popular web-based mail service.
  • Maps (February 2005) and Earth (June 2005) caused some head scratching as to why give away something so valuable for free. No wonder any longer. Today, Maps is essential to contextual local search.
  • Google Apps/Docs seemed like an odd investment, when debuting in stages and beta during summer of 2005. But the service is very much about collaboration context.
  • Google Talk (August 2005) played catchup with other messaging clients when released. Today, it seamlessly, and easily, follows users across devices providing relationship context.
  • In October 2006, Google purchased YouTube, which proved to be a huge driver of original content and, more recently, Hollywood-made productions available anytime, anywhere on anything.

These services stand out for being released around the same time, but coming together as part of a larger package of contextually-oriented offerings in 2011 and 2012, alongside Google+ and Search, plus your World. These services are all about context, providing what you want where you need it. Google offers many services, but search, alongside these nine -- Android; Apps; Chrome; Gmail; Google+; Maps; Search, plus your World; Talk; YouTube -- forms the current contextual platform that culminates in one service.

Google Now is where the search giant extends contextual cloud computing in a big way. The service debuted with Android 4.1 in July, and Google dispatched a new iteration alongside v4.2, which starts shipping on new devices November 13.

The service represents a watershed development. Google successfully presents its depth of search and contextual services in a truly meaningful manner -- one that can change how people interact with mobile devices. You don't have to search. The feature tracks activities and location, anticipating what information the user needs before asking and presenting it contextually.

Google Now presents information in "cards". Is there an accident on your daily commute? Google Now will tell you. Is there an interesting nearby event, you are notified. Ditto for public transportation and time the next bus or train will come.

Contextual Cloud Computing

Google gets contextual computing, what I'll henceforth only refer to as contextual cloud computing. That's sure to keep the company's products and services relevant, even as PC-era companies struggle to maintain relevance. Next to Google, Amazon stands closest delivering truly relevant contextual cloud computing experience.

Those vendors all hyped up about post-PC era devices need to rethink their approach. The challenge is providing context across multiple devices, something Samsung increasingly does well. Microsoft moves in the right direction with Office 365, Surface, Windows 8 and Xbox Live. Nokia is nearly a lost cause, and would be if not for a sprinkling of Microsoft cloud services. Apple runs in place. Sony has the basic concept right but needs a less-siloed approach (that could be said for Samsung, too).

The post-PC era already is over, if it ever began. The personal computer's role changes, becoming one of many contextual devices rather than the central hub connecting them. If the PC continues, even in decline, how can there be "post" anything? Welcome instead to the contextual cloud computing era -- and be glad for the freedom it brings.

Photo Credits: andrea michele piacquadio/Shutterstock

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