On the occasion of the launch of the second generation of Apple’s iPad tablet, CEO Steve Jobs essentially declared the end of the two-decade PC era.
“These are post-PC devices that need to be even easier to use than the PC, and even more intuitive,” Jobs said at the end of Wednesday’s iPad 2 launch event in San Francisco, using the phrase “post-PC” a dozen or so times in reflecting on the year since Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) once again put the PC and consumer electronics industries on notice with the launch of the original iPad. Just like the iPhone in 2007, the iPad is quickly showing that people are finally ready for a more intimate computing experience than the one provided by their laptops but now, they want it in an easier to read and use package than a smartphone.
Apple shipped 15 million iPads in the 9 months following its March shipping date through the close of the year. That’s “more than every Tablet PC ever sold,” Jobs cracked, referring to Microsoft’s failed attempt to drive a similar idea into the computer industry a decade ago with its Tablet PC software. Ten years ago the hardware simply wasn’t capable of providing a lightweight computing experience, and Microsoft’s pen-based user interface wasn’t all that popular outside the hardcore geek crowd.
But now all the planets are aligning around lightweight 9-inch-or-so screens that can go all day on a single battery charge and fit comfortably in a purse or backpack. These devices are also allowing software developers and designers to break free their reliance on the keyboard (based on the 19-century typewriter) and mouse input devices to a more natural series of buttons, gestures, and even voice commands. Jobs talked about the dawn of this “post-PC era” last year at the D: All Things Digital conference, but offered numbers and evidence Wednesday that suggests we’re already there.
There’s nothing particularly notable about the iPad 2 as compared to the original. Sure, it’s thinner, faster, and more capable than the original, but it’s basically the same device in terms of what it allows the user to accomplish (modest exceptions such as iMovie and GarageBand aside).
But what it does do is cement Apple’s reputation as the catalyst for this “post-PC” era.
Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), the architect of the PC era, is barely present in the so-called “connected devices” market, which for the sake of this discussion includes smartphones, tablets, and ereaders like the Kindle. Google (NSDQ: GOOG) is making a valiant attempt to play the foil to Apple’s ambitions but is just getting its first Android version designed specifically for tablets out the door. HP (NYSE: HPQ) and RIM (NSDQ: RIMM) have presented interesting ideas, but have nothing in the market yet.
Apple is 15 million devices into the tablet portion of this era (which doesn’t even count the 100 million iPhones that have shipped to date) and will have its second take out in two weeks, with many expecting they’ll have another more capable model available as soon as this fall. Just as Google’s Android has caught up to the iPhone’s lead, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Apple won’t necessarily have the tablet space to itself forever. But for now, it basically does.
Jobs and Apple believe that their integrated model–in which a single tightly-knit company designs the hardware, software, and services around the device–is the only thing that can succeed in such an era. That’s certainly open for debate: Apple can argue its method produces the “best” device but that leaves plenty of room for those who are willing to cater to other parts of the market, as we’ve seen with smartphones.
It does, however, mean that any publisher or software developer looking to target the tablet experience has no choice but to pay attention to the iPad, because design-by-partners takes time and pain. In the PC era, PC companies like Dell and HP essentially ceded most design decisions to Microsoft and Intel (NSDQ: INTC) and wound up having to compete tooth and nail on price and brightly colored designs. Phone and tablet makers would like to avoid such a fate.
Discussion of a “post-PC” doesn’t mean that all of a sudden PCs suddenly vanish. Just like television didn’t really “kill” radio, and like computers have yet to kill televisions, there’s room for multiple devices in the average home or office and years of opportunity to make money off the PC.
But it does mean that if tech and media companies want to stay relevant over the next decade, they need to pay attention to these trends, which are not flashes in the pan. (See: netbooks) They represent nothing less than a dramatic new opportunity to break free of the constraints of the PC era and invent new ways to combine human ingenuity and processing power.
We wouldn’t have gotten here without the PC, but we’re ready to move beyond it. A generation of kids born after the development of the World Wide Web in 1995 is about to get their driver’s licenses, and they’ll be off at college after that. They’ll probably want some sort of keyboard to type up their term papers, but they are increasingly consuming media on phones and tablets.
And at the moment, Apple offers easily the strongest combination of product, price, and services for those interested in the tablet market. Jobs said time and time again Wednesday that he believes 2011 will be the year of the iPad 2, and while that remains to be seen, it’s clearly going to be the year of the tablet.
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