This Week's Sponsor:

Listen Later

Listen to Articles as Podcasts

On iPads and Personal Computers: A Post-PC Retrospective

There’s been a debate lately as to whether the iPad can fit into the so-called PC category. Following the release of several estimates and market research studies showing much different results when the iPad is included in the overall PC sales of the entire industry, a number of people have voiced once again their opinions on the matter, producing a variegate mix of diverging points. Our writer Graham Spencer chimed in as well, analyzing the reasons behind certain people’s assertion that the iPad can’t be a PC because it can’t fully replace a personal computer.

I, however, would like to take a different route and look at this issue from a broader perspective that includes data, Apple’s history, the current market’s situation, and the tech community’s change of direction on the “iPad as a PC” debate over the past two years.

The starting point, I believe, lies in the words Steve Jobs used to introduce the iPad back in 2010:

Everybody uses a laptop and a smartphone. And a question has arisen lately: is there room for a third category of device in the middle? Something that’s between a laptop and a smartphone. And of course we’ve pondered this question for years as well. The bar’s pretty high. In order to really create a new category of devices, those devices are going to have to be far better at doing some key tasks. Better than a laptop. Better than a smartphone. Now, some people have thought…that’s a netbook. The problem is, netbooks aren’t better at anything. They’re slow, they have low quality displays and they run clunky old PC software. So, they’re not better than a laptop at anything. They’re just cheaper. They’re just cheap laptops. We don’t think they’re a new category of device.

In the few minutes that led to the iPad’s introduction, Jobs carefully set the tone and Apple’s position for the upcoming discussions on the true nature of the device: the iPad is meant to be a “third category” that executes “key tasks” better than a laptop, and better than a smartphone. He didn’t compare the iPad to a PC, but he did mention that Apple wouldn’t follow the trend of releasing cheap “netbooks” that “aren’t better at anything”. Of course, Steve Jobs iterated on his statements regarding the nature of the iPad a few months later at D8 Conference. This is where Jobs famously compared PCs to trucks:

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed on the farm,” Jobs said at D8 last month. “But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, cars got more popular. Innovations like automatic transmission and power steering and things that you didn’t care about in a truck as much started to become paramount in cars….PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by one out of x people.

As you can see, Jobs’ public definition and positioning of the iPad slightly changed in the months between January and June 2010. I believe the more intimate setting of D8 got Jobs into a talking mood which helped him express what he truly felt about the iPad and PCs; I also believe Apple itself was (is) still trying to understand what the iPad ultimately is, thus definitions and public statements might change and evolve over time. Tim Cook stated numerous times that, whilst excited about the opportunities opened by iPad, Apple still has to fully understand just how much market there is behind it. Furthermore, keep in mind how Apple initially touted the iPad as a productivity machine (2010 keynote), then an entertainment platform (iPad 2 keynote) and subsequently as an educational machine (January 2012). Apple still has to fully grasp the potential of the iPad, and is firing on all cylinders to gain as much share as possible before the market is too crowded. That’s not to say Apple doesn’t have a strategy; in fact, they have multiple ones and they are trying to optimize the proper sequence for the company to put them in place.

Strategies, typically, are based on patterns, and Apple wouldn’t have gotten to exceed $46 billion in revenue if these patterns hadn’t been associated with the numbers and data coming in after the launch of the original iPad. The numbers speak clearly for Apple: of all iOS devices, the iPad has the most rapid trajectory in every quarter since launch with an impressive growth from 3.27 million units (first quarter) to 15.43 million units sold (last quarter). Horace Dediu has put together a nice chart showing the penetration of the iPad in terms of shipments and growth.

Numbers help establishing patterns that define strategies and business models. Sure enough, the early success of the iPad has allowed Apple to turn a product that represents a good 20% of revenue into a category worth focusing on for the future. As I explained in this article, if the source is to be believed, Tim Cook hinting at the iPad being a better alternative than a possible ARM-based, iPad-like MacBook Air is interesting for a number of reasons. First off, it sort of implies that tasks that can be accomplished with an iPad-inspired MacBook Air (that is, regular PC tasks with instant-on and a slimmer form factor) could be easily, if not better executed by the iPad itself. Indeed, the same report goes on to note that Tim Cook believes the iPad “satisfies—or will soon satisfy—the needs of those who might have been interested in such a product”. More importantly, assuming an ARM-based MacBook Air has ever been in testing within Apple and that such a machine would be positioned as an ultra-portable, fast and durable low-end Mac, it means Apple sees the iPad as the portable and lightweight personal computer for the masses seeking a high-quality product in the low end.

So far we have considered Steve Jobs’ own words in describing iPads and the traditional PC market, linked back to statements by Tim Cook from the past months, and analyzed Apple’s sales numbers for a device that only launched in April 2010. And while this set of data does contribute to painting a bigger picture of the “iPad as a PC” story, it only covers half of the spectrum as it doesn’t take into account Apple’s biggest shift in the consumerization of tablets: the push towards so-called post-PC devices.


To be fair, Apple has been consistently using the “post-PC device” monicker for at least five years to describe products such as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad (Jobs had been dreaming up the perfect tablet since (at least) 2002). To give context to Apple’s definition of post-PC, I’ve been able to dig up some old quotes from 2007 and 2011 – the four year time interval also helps noticing how Apple’s own post-PC strategy was refined over the years.

Steve Jobs at D5 in 2007:

And, of course, PCs are going mobile in an ever greater degree. So I think the PC is going to continue. This general purpose device is going to continue to be with us and morph with us, whether it’s a tablet or a notebook or, you know, a big curved desktop that you have at your house or whatever it might be. So I think that’ll be something that most people have, at least in this society. In others, maybe not, but certainly in this one. But then there’s an explosion that’s starting to happen in what you call post-PC devices, right? You can call the iPod one of them. There’s a lot of things that are not. … I think there’s just a category of devices that aren’t as general purpose, that are really more focused on specific functions, whether they’re phones or iPods or Zunes or what have you. And I think that category of devices is going to continue to be very innovative and we’re going to see lots of them.

But I think the question is a very simple one, which is how much of the really revolutionary things people are going to do in the next five years are done on the PCs or how much of it is really focused on the post-PC devices. And there’s a real temptation to focus it on the post-PC devices because it’s a clean slate and because they’re more focused devices and because, you know, they don’t have the legacy of these zillions of apps that have to run in zillions of markets.

And so I think there’s going to be tremendous revolution, you know, in the experiences of the post-PC devices. Now, the question is how much to do in the PCs. And I think I’m sure Microsoft is–we’re working on some really cool stuff, but some of it has to be tempered a little bit because you do have, you know, these tens of millions, in our case, or hundreds of millions in Bill’s case, users that are familiar with something that, you know, they don’t want a car with six wheels. They like the car with four wheels. They don’t want to drive with a joystick. They like the steering wheel.

And so, you know, you have to, as Bill was saying, in some cases, you have to augment what exists there and in some cases, you can replace things. But I think the radical rethinking of things is going to happen in a lot of these post-PC devices.

Phill Schiller, iPad Year One video:

The iPad is a not a personal computer, it’s beyond that. Some people call it a post-PC device because it can do some of the things a PC did, in a far more personal way.

Steve Jobs, iPad 2 keynote:

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing. And nowhere is that more true that in these post-PC devices. […] These are post-PC devices that need to be even easier to use, that need to be even more intuitive than a PC, where the software and the hardware and the applications need to intertwine in an even more seamless way than they do on a PC.

Scott Forstall, WWDC 2011:

We’re living in a post-PC world. In fact, especially with the iPad we’re ushering in the post-PC world. We have a lot of customers coming to us and saying “I wanna buy an iPad as my only device”.

Reading through Apple’s interpretation of post-PC over the years, the key points are:

  • A post-PC device is beyond a personal computer.
  • A post-PC device can do some things a PC did in a more personal way.
  • A post-PC device’s hardware and software ecosystem are tightly integrated.
  • A post-PC device is easier to use than a PC.
  • A post-PC device is more intuitive than a PC.
  • The post-PC era started with the iPod.
  • Back then, the PC was seen as a “general purpose device”.
  • The initial vision for post-PC device is that of a “focused device” (Steve Jobs in 2007).
  • Post-PC devices are a clean slate with no legacy apps.
  • The iPad is leading the new post-PC revolution.
  • A post-PC device can be your only device.

You can see how, in retrospective, Apple says the post-PC revolution started with the original iPod (a focused device) and has been carried on by the iPhone and iPad. The tablet has become the post-PC device, which, however, can now also be more “general purpose”, albeit some tasks can still only be executed from a traditional PC. If still sounds confusing, I’ve gathered links from old articles I had bookmarked – these are “real people” – not some Apple executives – writing about post-PC devices in every day lives.

So what’s the difference between a Mac and an iPad? It’s that blank slate thing. No matter what you do on a Mac, the keyboard and mouse and window-based operating system make it impossible to ignore the fact that you’re using a Mac, and it’s often equally impossible to ignore the fact that you’re using a particular program.

In contrast, the iPad becomes the app you’re using. That’s part of the magic. The hardware is so understated - it’s just a screen, really - and because you manipulate objects and interface elements so smoothly and directly on the screen, the fact that you’re using an iPad falls away. You’re using the app, whatever it may be, and while you’re doing so, the iPad is that app. Switch to another app and the iPad becomes that app. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

Why the iPad Is a Blank Slate, and Why That’s Important, Adam C. Engst (@adamengst), April 2010

It’s absolutely not a productivity device for me, but that’s OK: I have computers for that.

Accepting that the iPad isn’t an all-purpose computing device is going to be a slow process for everyone, including Apple. They can’t quite explain what it’s for, either, which is why the launch marketing, software, and accessories are a bit scatterbrained. For instance, if you’re using a hardware keyboard with the iPad very often, you’d probably be much better served by a MacBook Air.

This doesn’t make the iPad a worse product or a waste of money. It’s just not as general-purpose as a regular computer. (Nothing could be. That’s an impossible goal.)

Find the balance: use the iPad for what it does well, accept that it won’t be everything, and use other tools for the rest.

- The iPad doesn’t need to do everything, Marco Arment (@marcoarment), May 2010

To define a new generation of computing by its isolation and exclusion of the previous generation is not sustained by the history of computing.

- What’s a Post-PC device?, Horace Dediu (@asymco), March 2011

I don’t think this was their plan from the start — I think Apple didn’t know any better than we did, a year ago, whether the iPad was going to end up as a productivity device in practice. They probably thought, like we did, that it would replace laptops a lot more often.

But, as often happens in technology, the iPad hasn’t “killed” the laptop at all — it has simply added a new role for itself. And that role doesn’t include office productivity for most of us.

Apple is now adapting to the market’s actual use by retreating somewhat from office productivity and pushing strongly into new territory — casual media creation — to see if that gets a stronger uptake in practice. I think it will be a lot more interesting than office productivity, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in iOS to make it practical (especially regarding file transfers with computers).

Moving on from iPad “office productivity” apps, Marco Arment (@marcoarment), March 2011 (my reply here)

In this new world, Apple no longer has to compete on specs and features, nor does it want to. There is no Mac vs. PC here – only “the future” versus “the past.” It won’t be a debate about displays, memory, wireless options – it will be a debate about the quality of the experience. Apple is not just eschewing the spec conversation in favor of a different conversation – it’s rendering those former conversations useless.

It’s Apple’s ‘post-PC’ world – we’re all just living in it, Joshua Topolsky (@joshuatopolsky), March 2011

The iPad and other devices are not here to displace the PC (by which I mean all personal computers, whether they’re Macs or PCs running Windows). In fact, post PC means after PC, a new generation of products that build on the PC. What it doesn’t mean is sans PC, that is, without PC. The personal computer will no doubt be with us for a very long time… but that doesn’t mean we’re not in the post-PC world.

Why “post PC” doesn’t mean “sans PC”, Michael Gartenberg (@gartenberg), April 2011

The post-PC era is characterized by an explosion of ideas and application of new talent to software. It’s an era of immediate gratification and painless, one click distribution. App production is a cottage industry not something entrusted to only a few experts or those who can raise venture capital. It allows the small to distribute widely and get a shot at stardom. It has been (thankfully) avoided by enterprise buyers. The result is an explosion of apps: well over half a million new apps have been built in three years on three platforms that did not exist three years ago.

The Post-PC era will be a multi-platform era, Horace Dediu (@asymco), July 2011

By this metric, we can see that mobile computing (as opposed to portable or immobile computing) is driving 80% of Apple’s profitability. This 80/20 mix of mobile/non-mobile should put aside any doubts that Apple has moved on to be a business oriented around mobility rather than traditional computing.

Apple has moved on, Horace Dediu (@asymco), July 2011

I have nothing against these products, except that by inadvertently furthering the belief that the iPad is mostly just good for reading, they distract from the device’s many other unique qualities. For example, we’re just beginning to understand how, in unexpected ways, the iPad is stoking a transformation of the living room experience — you could argue that it is the promise of interactive TV fulfilled. We’re also just starting to see how the iPad is going to turn gaming inside out, not just with its multitouch interface but also in the way its App Store economy is rewriting our expectations for virtual entertainment. The area that’s most interesting to me is how the iPad has seemed to force a distinction between consumption and creation. It’s true that it’s very difficult to be productive on the iPad in the same way that it’s possible to be productive on a desktop or a laptop, but I also think most people have misunderstood this to mean that creation is impossible on this platform. I don’t believe that’s true.

What Comes After Reading on iPad, Khoi Vinh (@khoi), August 2011

On the other hand, I think the fact that the iPad is so shareable is something really different, too, and the fact that it currently supports only one user account creates some intriguing repercussions. This characteristic suggests a new approach to software that isn’t as explicitly focused on a single user, but rather takes into account couples and families acting in concert — or acting individually, but in staggered or alternating sessions — to draw out a highly varied feature-list.

The Post-Personal iPad, Khoi Vinh (@khoi), August 2011

As innovation and adaptation advance we will no doubt see an increase in usefulness and simplicity across all technological markets and industries. The race is no longer about who can make the most useful product. Now the race is about who can make the most delightful product at the most affordable cost.

Apple knows this. It’s why they’re not afraid to cannibalize their own products. It’s why we’re seeing the amalgamation of OS X and iOS. It’s why the iPhone and the iPad are so wildly successful. It’s why the Apple developer community is thriving — because others get it too.

The Future of Technology, Shawn Blanc (@shawnblanc), September 2011

And, again, we have written about the subject extensively in our Stories section before, particularly in an article by Graham Spencer from early February. Having used an iPad for two years and having read several essays and articles about its post-PC nature, I would add these points to the list:

  • A post-PC device is still complimentary to a traditional PC for many people.
  • A post-PC device is focused on apps.
  • A post-PC device like the iPad is the best example of Apple switching its main business to a new area.
  • People expect post-PC devices to be delightful and easy to use.
  • In the post-PC era, user experience is more important than tech specs.
  • Computers will still be around for a long time.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that an iPad doesn’t need to emulate a PC to be personal, or have the same software to make a user be productive and efficient. At the same time though, I find it interesting that a subset of users is willing to outfit iPads with PC-like physical keyboards and clamshell cases in order to make the device resemble and work like a traditional personal computer. The big problem with this entire controversy, I think, is that the iPad is inherently personal but some people want it to be more like a personal computer, as in the old definition of personal computer from the ’90s, thus the confusion among bloggers and analysts.

Is it personal, or a personal computer?

The iPad is both, if you’re willing to accept the fact that personal computer isn’t strictly associated to Windows-based PCs. The iPad is personal because it’s a much more intimate experience than a traditional computer thanks to its touch interface, form factor, and big screen; it’s a personal computer because it is a computing device that can be operated by an individual who finds it useful and easy to use. Finally, because of its post-PC nature, the iPad is even easier to use and more intuitive than a PC – just keep in mind that post-PC means “after the PC era”, not “without PCs altogether”. So, one could conclude that the iPad is the next-generation personal computer.

In my research, I have collected a series of theories surrounding the possible meaning of post-PC device and whether the iPad can generally be regarded a new kind of PC.

Post-PC empowers people to work and be entertained thanks to new interfaces and easy access to apps. The post-PC device is different from a netbook because netbooks didn’t really revolutionize anything; unlike Apple’s, devices from the competition fail at empowering people because they lack the software ecosystem.

Post-PC is the ecosystem of devices and services. Hardware and software are unified by the ecosystem, and because the values are interchangeable, ultimately the ecosystem becomes the definition of post-PC itself. The competition still fails to understand today’s market requirement for a solid ecosystem.

A post-PC device like the iPad needs to be experienced first-hand to be fully understood. This may fade with time, but some people still don’t completely “get” the device and why they would need one. As users become more accustomed with the iPad awareness will grow; with the iPad (and thus post-PC) becoming a new paradigm I expect this theory to go away.

The new paradigm will foster a new generation of learners and creators. Kids learning software on iPads won’t even know what a mouse is. Their brains will be wired differently.


As with every theory, there is another side of the coin that reveals itself only in practice. Here are some common counterpoints I’m often reminded of when talking about iPads, PCs, and post-PC devices.

Working only from an iPad today can make you feel underpowered because the iPad still isn’t capable of executing some of the tasks a PC did. It’s impressive how two years of iPad App Store development have caught up with 20+ years of PC software, with the exception of a few “advanced areas” that are not yet technically feasible (example: full Photoshop on iOS). Because the iPad lets you focus on one app at a time, though, it feels faster than a traditional PC. Seeing only one app at a time makes you both limited and focused, and I could argue that sometimes creativity is enriched within defined limits.

The iPad needs improvements in several key areas of iOS. I can relate to this: for instance, I’d like a revamped Home screen, better communication between apps, and a centralized location for saving files. I’d like to see user accounts come to the iPad someday, App Store demos, and Apple getting rid of the iPhone’s compatibility mode for apps. I also believe users should be able to download files with their iOS devices and save them locally, not just “open” them in other installed apps.

When you consider all the pros and cons of the iPad as a post-PC device and look at the sales numbers, it’s impossible to wonder just how much Apple’s proverbial halo effect has been reversed, and how many iPad owners are now turning into Mac users looking for a more “complete” experience from the same company. This argument bodes well for Apple’s progressive iOS-ification of the desktop – with the “Back to the Mac” initiative, Apple has brought the best features of iOS back to where it all started (quite possibly) because of these new “switchers” who are jumping onto OS X after a positive experience on iOS devices. And when they do, they’re expecting to find another post-PC device that’s ready to tie into the ecosystem they’re already familiar with. Plug & play. That’s why the PC was “demoted” to just a device months ago: for a seamless transition between devices.

If you asked me what device should a non-tech savvy user buy nowadays to get started with browsing, email, office productivity and casual gaming, I’d recommend an iPad. What I wrote about the iPhone 4S back in October holds true for the iPad – with an interplay of hardware and software, Apple has created an experience that transcends technology and becomes an extension of our digital life and our digital selves in the sweet spot between hardware, software, services, and media.

PC Sans Post

Yet in spite of the arguments above, some people are still debating whether the iPad can be a PC or not, as if the definition itself could somehow dismantle the fact that it’s entirely possible for a large number of average users to forego a traditional computer entirely, and get things done exclusively on their personal iPad computing device. For the sake of research, I have collected another round of links featuring the question (Is the iPad a PC?) and the answer (Here’s what I’m doing with my iPad). I believe the perspective offered by these articles contributes to the “big picture” that’s been so elusive in the past two years (it also provides better historical context when discerning the roots of the post-PC device in the microcomputer revolution from a few decades ago).

Excluding iPads, Apple is very close to being 5th largest global PC vendor. Global share likely to be above 5%. Including iPads, Apple would be 2nd. Excluding tablets, nearly 50% of the global PC growth was due to the Mac. Including iPad, Apple was responsible for ~70% of the growth in the PC market in Q2.

The picture that emerges is that while Windows continues to be dominant with 84% of units sold in the last quarter, the growth belongs to tablets which captured about 90% of it. If Windows remains marginal on tablets, the “PC market” will likely tip away from Microsoft in two years (depending on how quickly Apple can build iPads.)

Is the tablet computer a new PC or post-PC?, Horace Dediu (@asymco), July 2011

I consider the iPad a PC because, in my view, a PC (Personal Computer) is just that: a personal computing device.

The iPad is a Personal Computer—true or false?, Ken Fisher (@kenfisher), August 2011

What if we count the iPad as a Computer…, Sebastian Peitsch (@SPeitsch), January 2012

The initial proposition seemed crazy. I was sure it was not possible to work this way. My job as a writer and editor here at Ars depends on (too much) serious multitasking with multiple open windows. I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to successfully write full articles with proper formatting, links, images, and HTML using only iPad apps. And let’s not even talk about the Ars CMS—many of us at Ars have attempted to use it from our iPhones in the past; it has always ended in tears. So imagine my surprise when a day on the iPad actually worked.

- Masochist me? An Ars writer’s iPad-only workday, Jacqui Cheng (@ejacqui), September 2011

It all started in August. I read Walt Mossberg’s review of four portable Bluetooth keyboards for the iPad 2 at All Things D and was intrigued–especially by the ZaggFolio, which cleverly builds a truly notebook-like keyboard into an attractive case. So I bought one. The ZaggFolio changed the way I use my iPad, and that changed my life.

How the iPad 2 Became My Favorite Computer, Harry McCracken (@harrymccracken), December 2011

On September 19th, I said goodbye to my trusty MacBook Pro and started developing exclusively on an iPad + Linode 512. This is the surprising story of a month spent working in the cloud.

I swapped my MacBook for an iPad+Linode, Mark O’Connor (@yieldthought), December 2011

People are using tablets to create now, and it’s just the beginning. The battle for tablet supremacy is being won by Apple right now, but the war isn’t even close to being over. There will come a day when mobile PCs like laptops will blend thoroughly and people will simply make a choice based on the form factor, rather than whether or not they ‘use them to create’.

Look, tablets are PCs, get over it, Matthew Panzarino (@mpanzarino), January 2012

The takeaway from the articles linked above, to me, is this:

  • Some great people are doing some great stuff with their iPads. They don’t care about it being a “PC” in the analysts’ reports, because to them the iPad is already a “personal computer”.

Post post-PC Era

In doing research for this piece, it occurred to me that far more people than we think are already using iPads as their primary computers. Besides collecting links and looking into my bookmark archive to see what’s changed since 2010 in how the iPad is perceived, I have talked to people who are using an iPad every day. They don’t complain about it. They don’t “consume content”: they read, write, take notes, plan business projects and look at complex diagrams with their iPads. They are students who are taking the device to classrooms, and they are managers who have discovered how better it is to fit a year’s worth of PDF reports into a tablet rather than a heavy, clunky PC. When I asked them if they thought the iPad could be a personal computer, the common response was that such a device allowed them to do the same things as before, in a new way, without the constraints of a “real” PC. Ultimately, these people echoed the underlying sentiment of my research: it’s personal, but it goes beyond a PC.

Twenty years from now, kids will wonder why we spent so much time arguing whether post-PC devices could still be defined personal computers.

Will they be able to imagine a world where touch interaction is not common & expected?

Unlock More with Club MacStories

Founded in 2015, Club MacStories has delivered exclusive content every week for over six years.

In that time, members have enjoyed nearly 400 weekly and monthly newsletters packed with more of your favorite MacStories writing as well as Club-only podcasts, eBooks, discounts on apps, icons, and services. Join today, and you’ll get everything new that we publish every week, plus access to our entire archive of back issues and downloadable perks.

The Club expanded in 2021 with Club MacStories+ and Club Premier. Club MacStories+ members enjoy even more exclusive stories, a vibrant Discord community, a rotating roster of app discounts, and more. And, with Club Premier, you get everything we offer at every Club level plus an extended, ad-free version of our podcast AppStories that is delivered early each week in high-bitrate audio.

Choose the Club plan that’s right for you:

  • Club MacStories: Weekly and monthly newsletters via email and the web that are brimming with app collections, tips, automation workflows, longform writing, a Club-only podcast, periodic giveaways, and more;
  • Club MacStories+: Everything that Club MacStories offers, plus exclusive content like Federico’s Automation Academy and John’s Macintosh Desktop Experience, a powerful web app for searching and exploring over 6 years of content and creating custom RSS feeds of Club content, an active Discord community, and a rotating collection of discounts, and more;
  • Club Premier: Everything in from our other plans and AppStories+, an extended version of our flagship podcast that’s delivered early, ad-free, and in high-bitrate audio.