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What is a 'Personal Computer?'
Posted Jan 31, 2012 - 9:49:31

386On Monday, Canalys stated that, if you count Tablets as PCs, Apple has become the largest client-PC manufacturer. This, when it hit the blogosphere, caused the entirely predictable Nerd-rage you'd expect. From the depths of "I'm too emotionally invested in this" came the "The iPad is not a f***ing PC!" comments. From mayfly memories came comments like "Well seeing as iPads don't have Flash, USB ports, built in DVD players, real keyboards, things like Microsoft Word, hmmmm yeaaaaa, they totally count as PCs..."

It's so funny it kind of hurts.

First off, to that last guy... You know what this is? It's a PC that doesn't run Flash, have USB ports, and has no built in DVD player. It has a real keyboard, I'll give you that. Secondly, none of those things seem to actually define what a 'Personal Computer' is.

Merriam Webster defines a 'personal computer' as "a general-purpose computer equipped with a microprocessor and designed to run especially commercial software (as a word processor or Internet browser) for an individual user." Now that I've thoroughly confused you, let's actually talk about this. While the iPad is more restricted and limited than a Windows, Mac or Linux machine, it still is (by all formal definitions) a Personal Computer. It's a different form factor than desktops and laptops, but it's still a device that runs many kinds of software to perform virtually every kind of function.

And before someone starts listing the limits of iOS as an operating system, let me remind you that iOS has more in common with a modern desktop operating system than what any of my 386es are running. Having an exclusive source of software does not make it less of a PC.

The only thing an iOS device cannot do that other PCs can is author its own software. It's true, you can't code an iPad app on an iPad. But is that really a requirement of a "client-PC?" I don't think it is, especially when you consider that the vast majority of PCs will never be used to author a single piece of software.

Finally, you may say "The only difference between my smart phone and an iPad is screen size -- do you consider that a Personal Computer?" Well, actually, kind of - yeah. The very fact that we keep calling smartphones "phones" is kind of silly, and only done so out of habit. Should we include smartphones in the client-PC metric? That's a good question.

I honestly haven't made up my mind on the subject. If we include tablets in "PC" manufacturing, maybe we should -- the smartphone is essentially a pocket computer. Even the devices from ten years ago are faster computers than my first "PC." On the other hand, while an iPad makes a decent laptop replacement, I wouldn't say the same over the exact same hardware in an iPhone.

In the end, I think it's time we started grouping them all together for mass metrics, but separating by category -- including splitting laptops from desktops. Pardon the pun, but while we're comparing apples to oranges, can we at least all agree they're all fruit?
- Traegorn

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I think the more perplexing issue has become that these devices are now serving so many purposes.  With the advent of so many apps of so many varieties, tablets and phones have now become libraries, game consoles, home environmental control remotes, notepads, cameras, and any number of functions that may, at one point, have been served by separate devices or larger machines.  But the form factor of the device more easily lends itself to, say, taking a picture of a leaf and instantly determining what type of plant you happen to be looking at.  Can it be done with a laptop?  sure.  Even desktop PC's can do it, but a device that is hand-held with built-in features like a camera (sometimes two), microphone, etc is just far more convenient for many of these tasks.  All of that serves to carve a de facto niche for these devices, though I fully agree that they are all PC's.  Even my more rudimentary 'dumb phone' has some measure of PC qualities including low-quality downloadable apps.  It's been on the horizon since the arrival of PDA's a decade or so ago.
The irony is some of the PDAs from ten years ago have faster processors than my PC from fifteen years ago. :P
Well, here's the thing - the iPad is incapable of operating without another computer. I don't care how great iCloud is (and it is pretty neat) if you want to remove music or pictures that your previously synced or if you want to perform a major update you'll need to connect it to a computer.

Yes, the delta updates are cool and they save a ton of hassle for people that have software compatibility issues that prevent them from updating on their computer. Yes, iTunes in the Cloud and iCloud savs scads of people from the nightmare of data loss.

The problem is that people don't realize that having another computer is a system requirement of the iPad, so they get super annoyed when something breaks and they lose all the data that they didn't back up in iCloud because they thought it was for music (this is a conversation I had a week ago).

To an extent, Apple has been here before. The Air needed another computer for initial setup, and to load apps if you didn't buy the optional external hard drive. But the App Store is pretty much taking care of loading new applications that otherwise would have needed a disk. Hey, you can even update Mac OS that way, which bodes well for iOS, I suppose.

For now though, the iPad simply isn't independent enough of other devices for me to call it a PC with a straight face.
To be fair though, data portability has never been part of the definition of a PC.  Back in the day, if your copy of FREDWrite got demagnetized, you lost all of your documents -- but the Applie II was still a personal computer.

(I actually don't sync my iPad to any PC -- because my old Macbook is still running Tiger.  When I bought it in the pre-iOS5 days, I used an old XP machine to activate it and do OS updates, but once iOS 5 came out... it hasn't touched a computer since. I backup my app data to iCloud daily, and use Dropbox to transfer files to other machines.  It lives independent of another computer in my life)

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