A Clear And Present Danger

I often think about how my computing life would be different if I weren’t a professional blogger. I mean, I have my laptop on me at basically all times just in case I have to duck away and write something at a moment’s notice (it has happened more than I care to admit). But if I wasn’t a blogger, what would I use? And more broadly, if I wasn’t in the neck-deep in the tech sphere that currently controls my life, what would I use?

The answer is simple: an iPad.

Ahh! Fanboy alert! Ahhh! Run for the hills! Stop reading! Comment immediately! I know. We’ve been through this. I would say that you could replace “iPad” with “tablet”, but the problem is that there aren’t any other tablets that are worth a damn. So iPad it is.

Here’s the thing: at first, I wasn’t completely sold on the iPad as a PC replacement. And for my current line of work, I’m still not. It’s simply too hard to type more than a hundred words on the thing. You hear this refrain over and over again in the press. But it’s paradoxical. The press has to write about and review the iPad because that’s what they do. But they’re also the worst possible candidates for iPad usage.

I’ve slowly come to realize this over time. When I went on vacation a few months ago, I brought both my laptop and my iPad. I promised myself I wouldn’t do any work during the trip — as a result, the laptop never came out. Not once. The iPad? I used it every single day, for hours.

That’s important. The key is that I love computing and the web. Even during my off time, I love it. Yes, disconnect — blah, blah, blah. I’ll do what I want. But I’ve been trained over time to think that the traditional PC is the way to do these things whether it’s for work or play. That’s simply not true. The tablet form factor is so. much. better. when you don’t have to do an excessive amount of typing. And during downtime, when I use a computer like a more regular human being, I’ve found that’s often.

Fast forward to today. I was boarding a plane. In front of me in the security line was a family of four. Between them, they had four iPads. How do I know? Two were using them in line, and the other two (mom and dad) took them out to be scanned (even though, as it turns out after a brief discussion with security, they didn’t have to).

About 20 minutes later, I boarded my plane. Guess what I noticed? In the seats around me, another half dozen or so people using iPads. Yes, there were still more people using laptops on the plane, but not many.

Computing is changing. That’s just about the most obvious statement ever. We’ve been seeing this for years with the rise of the smartphones. But traditional computing is changing as well. As in, people are abandoning PCs for these newer devices. And this will keep happening.

I’m writing this post from the heart of the PC world: Seattle, Washington, about 15 miles west of Redmond — home of you-know-who. Microsoft and I have been at odds for about six years now. I’ve told this story before; I used to be a diehard Windows guy. Then I jumped to the Mac, and I haven’t looked back. Now I write incendiary things about Microsoft, while praising Apple. Many readers seem to think I have some ulterior motive in doing this. My motive is simple and straightforward: I now prefer Apple products to Microsoft ones.

But I’m one person, I don’t matter. What should matter to Microsoft is this feeling spreading. “The PC Isn’t Dying — It’s Just Evolving“, writes Harry McCracken for Time tonight. That’s nice. What an innocuous story. It’s pussyfooting around what’s really going on, and I think he knows it.

It’s not that the traditional PC is dying — it will never fully “die” in our lifetimes. But it will become something that is primarily a business machine, or a “truck” as Steve Jobs puts it. And it will eventually be just a small segment of business computing too. Just look at the business penetration that iPads are getting in this sector.

The real issue is that with the decay of the traditional PC market, Microsoft is the big loser. Sure the “PC”, meaning the term “personal computer”, is evolving, but it’s evolving to a world beyond Microsoft. The iPad, more than any other computing device, presents a clear and present danger to the Redmond-based juggernaut.

That’s why we’re seeing all this action and talk around Windows 8. It will be tablet-friendly but also PC-friendly — yadda yadda yadda. Microsoft is in full-on scramble mode. Individuals at the company admit this privately, but the company can never display such weakness publicly.

And the truth is that they don’t need to. If the PC business (again, the one we all think of now) started to rapidly decay tomorrow, Microsoft could still coast for another ten years, no problem. But internally, I do believe they know what is going on and what they need to do. Again, hence, Windows 8.

I don’t agree with the strategy for Windows 8 (at least what I’ve heard and seen so far). I think bifurcation will only confuse users and push more towards the iPad. But we’ll see. Metro looks good, there’s no denying that. I just wish Microsoft had the balls to go all-in on Metro.

Instead, we’re getting a lot of nonsense about how the PC isn’t dead, it’s just “evolving”. I’m now certain that Microsoft’s message when they do unveil Windows 8 will be how “everything is a PC”. Desktops, laptops, cellphones. It’s not about the hardware. Hogwash.

Microsoft’s problem is that the public isn’t stupid. They see the computing world changing before them, and they want in.

People aren’t going to buy Windows 8 tablets because they’re just like the PCs they know and love. In fact, if anything, people won’t buy them for that very reason. Microsoft thinks people love their PCs. They don’t. They’ve been chained to them for years. They want to be set free. The iPad allows for that. Tying Windows to their don’t-call-it-post-pc strategy is dangerous for Microsoft. Disdain is starting to outweigh comfort. Further, there are no more windows in this world for chrissakes!

I fully agree with the notion that HP CEO Leo Apotheker is leaving the PC business because of his roots in enterprise software. But I also believe that if the HP PC business was that great, there is no way he would ever float the idea of selling or spinning it off. Things aren’t looking too hot for the number two PC maker, Acer, either.

Bluntly: the PC business is a shitty business to be in right now. And as McCracken correctly points out, it has been for a while. The difference is that now there’s a real alternative: the iPad. And the alternatives from other players are going to keep coming, rapid-fire. Even if one of the Android tablets doesn’t take off anytime soon, I bet one of the ones based on Android will.

But the scariest notion for Microsoft has to be that the iPad is still nascent. It will continue to get better — and fast. Certainly a hell of a lot faster than the PC will at this point. Sorry, I mean the Windows 8 consumer electronics series device for portables homes edition ®.

I’m writing this on my laptop (a MacBook Air), but I really just want to be browsing the web on my iPad right now. So I’m ending this post to go do that. Within the next five years, I bet most of you reading this will also have this desire — even if you think you won’t.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because a tablet can’t do something right now, it never will. It will. And fast. And Microsoft knows this. That’s why it’s a clear and present danger. Not just a future one.