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What is the “Post-PC” World?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In March, Ray Ozzie, the new technology visionary for Microsoft, declared that we are already in the Post-PC era of computing, stating:

"People argue about ‘are we in a Post-PC world?’. Why are we arguing? Of course we are in a Post-PC world. That doesn’t mean the PC dies, that just means that the scenarios that we use them in, we stop referring to them as PCs, we refer to them as other things" (SMH.com).

Around the same time as Ozzie’s proclamation, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that his company had sold an awe-inspiring 172 million "Post-PC" iPhones, iPods, and iPads in the previous year, including more than 40 million iPads. It appears that portable devices are set to dominate the computer market as Cook also stated in his presentation that the iPad alone outsold the products of any single vendor of traditional PC in the final quarter of 2011.

"Research firm Gartner estimates that the leading vendor, Hewlett-Packard, shipped 14.7 million PCs worldwide in the same period. Some 92 million PCs were shipped by all vendors in that time frame" (SMH.com, 8 March, 2012).

This dramatic shift did not happen overnight, but has been brewing since the introduction of the iPhone and other connected portable devices in 2007, which have now, according to Ozzie, supplanted the PC as the primary means of computing in our society. What exactly is a "Post-PC world"? And what are the implications of this shift for higher education?

What is the Post-PC World?
Prior to unpacking the implications of this post-PC revolution for education, it is important to understand just what it means to live in this new era of computing. There are three significant developments that have led to a post-PC world: portable devices, cloud-based solutions, and the availability of constant connections.

Devices: Mobile computing, portable devices, smart phones, call them what you will, but the rapid proliferation of powerful, connected, portable computers has been the primary driving force behind the demise of the desktop and laptop PC. Smart phones, a melding of the PDA and the cell phone sparked this revolution by allowing users to essentially hold a very small, very robust computer in their hand. While these small devices lacked the full functionality of a PC initially, they have grown up dramatically in the past five years culminating in tablets which can effectively do everything that a desktop or laptop can do, in addition to some things that they cannot, such as GPS navigation (and thus location-based computing). Their smaller size also makes them ideal for mobile use – and not just taking them with you to set up on a table, but actual computing while moving.

Cloud-based solutions: The second innovation that has helped to make PCs less relevant is a dramatic advance in cloud-based resources including online storage, document creation, and collaboration tools. Where a few years ago users were tethered to their PC in order to access their files, the programs needed to work with those files, and an Internet connection to facilitate collaboration, using the cloud for those functions has unshackled workers from their desks. Cloud-based document storage is rapidly becoming the norm because it provides security from loss of data and convenience of accessibility independent of a specific machine. Fully functioning document creation suites such as Google Docs and Office 365 allow users to work on any device, regardless of whether it contains their software or not. An additional feature of these services is that they also allow for easy collaboration through the Internet, so that multiple individuals can work on a single document seamlessly.

Constant Connection: The final development that has enabled the rise of PC-less computing is the availability of (almost) always on connectivity to the Web. Between nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi and 3G/4G services there is the potential for an individual to be continuously connected to the Internet in nearly any possible location. This facilitates real time collaboration through connected applications and communication through video and audio conferencing. Additionally, this persistent connectivity changes the nature of what knowledge is from knowing information to accessing it. This final variable makes portable devices and cloud based services relevant.

These three factors have made the Post-PC world a reality and increased the places in which people can use technology as well as opened new possibilities for how computer technology integrates into our lives. One area in which the portable revolution will have a significant impact is in higher education where this new paradigm for computing has the potential to revolutionize the where, when, and how of higher education. Tomorrow’s post will take an in-depth look at the ways in which the Post-PC revolution impacts higher education in the 21st century.

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