Revolutions are chaotic: They upset the status quo, and leave old ways of doing things behind. The PC, once the spearhead of the personal digital revolution, may seem antiquated alongside sexy new tablets and smartphones. In reality, however, the PC is an intimate participant in the current revolution, changing its own nature to respond to new usage models and a new generation of users. If anything, Microsoft’s recent announcement of the Surface--a Windows 8 PC posing as a tablet--demonstrates the PC’s flexibility and relevance in the modern digital era.
The new computing revolution is upon us, driven by a legion of users and developers creating new ways of interacting with data, and with one another, in an always-connected world. And the new PC has stepped up to address the needs of users and application builders who have never known a world without the Internet. Apple and Microsoft are creating uniform operating environments, enabling a seamless transition from mobile phone to PC or Mac, all connected via cloud services. Windows 8 is leading the way, with the same OS core at the heart of Windows Phone 8, Windows RT, and Windows 8 on the PC.
The PC is undergoing its most radical makeover since the advent of the IBM PC three decades ago. Pundits like to call this the "post-PC era," but the PC remains the hub of our digital lives. Call it a PC, call it an Ultrabook, call it Surface--it’s still a personal computer to the core.
The New Revolution
Always-on connectivity, the cloud, and easy mobility define today’s personal technology revolution. Users have had a role in the revolution, embracing digital media consumption instead of viewing digital devices as mere tools. Users of smartphones and tablets--in particular, iPhone and iPad owners--blazed the trail. As in the early age of the personal computer (before the IBM PC), the nascent smartphone market was highly fragmented, with diverging views of what users wanted. These days, after the rise of the iPhone, almost all phones look startlingly similar. Having a data plan with your smartphone is now mainstream; it wasn’t always that way.
After a slow start, PC makers are now embracing the change. Inspired by the MacBook Air, Intel’s Ultrabook program is driving mainstream adoption of ultrathin, ultraportable PCs that make far fewer compromises than the netbooks of recent memory. The majority of these designs--including Apple’s--are based on Intel hardware.
The new generation of Ultrabooks has been relatively slow to adopt the always-connected model, as surprisingly few units are shipping with built-in cellular broadband. As true 4G networks become more widespread, that might change, especially as cloud storage becomes more integral to the operating system. Apple is already pursuing this idea with iCloud, and Microsoft will be integrating its SkyDrive service into Windows 8.
Ultrabooks are only one response to the changing market, though. Microsoft’s new Surface tablets show how PCs are evolving in other directions. The Surface RT model is locked into Microsoft’s app store, much as Apple’s iPad is locked into iTunes. But the Surface Pro is really an ultrathin PC in a tablet skin, with a fully functional Windows desktop and the ability to run most Windows applications.
Cloudy, With a Chance of Apps
While the notion of running software from the cloud isn’t new, it is gathering steam. Google has led the charge, and Google Docs has seen rapid adoption. Microsoft has been pitching Office 365 (a collection of hosted productivity apps) to businesses. Even games are running on the cloud, with companies such as Gaikai and OnLive offering games on cloud servers and delivering interactive streams to user desktops.
Unified Operating Environments
Both Apple and Microsoft are driving toward unified operating environments across smartphone, tablet, and personal computing platforms. In some ways, Microsoft is ahead of the curve. Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8 will offer nearly identical user experiences. With the release of iOS 6 and Mac OS X Mountain Lion, Apple is taking another step along the road to user-experience integration.
Not all users are on board with unified environments, though. Windows 8 seems to be particularly polarizing. Running the Metro interface on a desktop system, or even a laptop PC, seemed to be a baffling decision on Microsoft's part, until the announcement of the Surface. Windows 8 and the Surface are closely intertwined, and it’s clearly the direction Microsoft wants to take the operating system--and its users.
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