What Next After the Post-PC Era?

Post-PC era — It seems this phrase has been overused already, but one can be certain that we are going to keep hearing it for some time to come.

Finally I managed to watch Apple’s keynote of the launch of the new iPad that took place in March. Tim Cook talked about how Apple has its feet firmly planted in the post-PC era and how its three post-PC devices, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, contributed to 76% of Apple’s Q4-2011 quarterly revenue. Cook highlighted the fact that Apple sold more iPads in Q4-2011 than the number of PCs sold by any PC manufacturer, thus making it the perfect poster-child of the post-PC era.

Come summer when Apple releases Mountain Lion and brings the apps and features from iOS to Mac OS X, who knows, the marketing geniuses at Apple would have us believe that even the Mac has now become a post-PC device!!! So let’s pause for a second and understand what all this really means.

One can conclude Apple’s strategy to comprise of three building blocks: 1) Devices, 2) Platforms and Apps and 3) Cloud Services. The new iPad was the first device launch of the post-Steve era. While Steve’s absence is a big change, one might say not much has changed. The shroud of secrecy and the pre-launch hype all maintained their pre-Steve tenor. There continues to be speculation for the unreleased product. Ever since William Isaacson’s biography revealed Steve saying that he had finally cracked it, in reference to the television, the rumor mill has been rife with what this new Apple television would be.

Since Apple’s “revolutionary” devices generate so much excitement, let’s look at devices in a slightly different way. Let’s think of them as displays and look at these numerically by approximate screen size. Here we will include the Mac line up as well. So we have:

  • 4″ – iPod Touch, iPhone
  • 9″ – iPad
  • 11″-13″ – MacBook Air
  • 13″, 15″ and 17″ – MacBook Pro
  • 21″ and 27″ – iMac
  • 27″ – Thunderbolt Display

Technically, while the Thunderbolt Display is not really a device, its the largest screen Apple makes, for now at least, and I’ve included it above for a reason.

Even though there may be the 7″ iPad-mini and larger screen TVs, the fact is that, going purely by the numbers, only so many display sizes are possible. Moreover, while the smaller device sizes can afford Apple to have annual refresh cycles, like in the case of the iPod, iPhone and the iPad, most people don’t buy a new TV every year.

The bigger question is this: Once Apple launches the television that it is expected to do, does it effectively complete the product line up as far as display sizes are concerned? There will continue to be newer iPods, iPhones, iPads every year, and possibly every few years the newer Apple televisions, but are we to expect no more of the “new uber-cool magical revolutionary” iDevice?

This is where I believe AirPlay becomes critically important and assumes a significant role in Apple’s device strategy, especially if Apple can figure out a way to turn any screen into an iOS display. Think about the TV in your hotel room, the dashboard in your car, the screen on the back of a seat in an airplane, medical monitors, screens in casinos, kiosks in malls, etc. This will require some creative partnering, but if Apple can make any display of any size to be AirPlay-compliant, then this would open the door for new apps and experiences that can not only work on your iOS device but also leverage any external display for hybrid scenarios.

One example of an experience working simultaneously across multiple iOS displays is Scrabble from Electronic Arts. Players with the iPod Touch and iPhone have the tile rack on their small screens, whereas the Scrabble game board is on the iPad on the bigger screen. In future this game board could be on the new Apple television (without the need to have the current Apple TV box in the middle). Players can easily flick letters from their iPod/iPhone tile racks onto the game board on the larger screen. In this scenario, of course, all the devices are made by Apple. But this scenario should work with any larger display that was AirPlay-compliant.

How many times have I looked up directions on the iPhone, only to get in the car and had to type the same address all over again on the GPS display? Why couldn’t I just get the display to show the directions I already have on my iPhone?

When computing moves seamlessly across devices and displays creating new experiences or taking the friction out of existing clumsy experiences, that’s the true post-PC era, where we are not restricted to a form factor for a function. We would no longer have to make the choice of which device to use for which task, and things would just intelligently work. It reminds me of the “spatial operating environment” interface that Tom Cruise used in Minority Report!

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