When it rains, it pours. This has been quite a week for the emerging post-PC ecosystem. Apple introduced its iTunes music service, which is really more interesting for what it says about Apple than what it means for digital music distribution. Dell announced it is changing its name to remove the word "computer". And on Sunday, the New York times published a marvelous article by Steve Lohr about the evolution of the technology industry.
The common theme is that the ecosystems of the personal computer and enterprise IT are maturing and giving way to something new. Or several new things. What comes after the PC isn’t the Internet appliance, or the interactive TV, or the smart phone — it’s all those things and more. The underlying forces are irresistable. Moore’s Law continues unabated, but for end-users today’s processors don’t feel that much faster than last year’s. The market is no longer about putting a PC on everyone’s desk, or about connecting that PC to the Net, or about wiring up corporate systems, or about giving people tools like email and Web browsers. Been there, done that.
Smart companies like Dell, Microsoft, and Intel that have generated extraordinary wealth by riding the PC adoption curve realize that the ground is shifting. Dell’s name change reflects the fact that it, like the others, is branching out to non-PC devices. But that’s the least interesting of the three stories this week. New platforms such as handhelds, game consoles, and home media servers have been around for several years.
Apple’s iTunes service is more significant. Simply put, Apple is becoming a post-PC company. Everyone scratching their heads about how this will sell more Macs is missing the point. The Mac is near and dear to Apple, but the company has shown several times that it can jettison a core product — the Apple II, the 68000 processor, the pre-OS X system software — and reinvent itself. Apple is becoming something much closer to Sony: an integrated digital media company. Sony sells computers, but no one would call Sony a PC company. What it does best is create unique platforms and experiences, then market the hell out of them. That describes the new Apple as well. The heart of the company is the digital lifestyle, not a box. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony acquires Apple, though similar deals have fallen through before.)
And then there’s the New York Times piece. Don’t be mislead by the article’s rhetoric about tech’s "midlife crisis." That’s the negative spin the Times’ editors no doubt insisted on, because after all, how could anyone say positive things about tech these days? The point of the article is not that tech is dying, or that innovation is drying up. It’s that enterprise technology is moving into a new phase. Bigger, faster, and more feature-laden are no longer selling points in the same way. Smarter, simpler, more efficient, and more flexible are the new criteria. It’s much harder to make powerful system simple than to make them complex.
The same issue arises in the consumer market. Apple has won plaudits for the user experience of its digital music service. That, more than a novel business model or better deal with the record companies, is what could change the market. EMusic had most of the same features well before iTunes. But there were personal computers before the Apple II, and graphical user interfaces before the Macintosh. Apple, especially under Steve Jobs, has a genius for user experience and promotion. In a post-PC or post-technology world, those are two essential skills.
So, onward we go. This is a time of reinvention, not senescence, for the tech industry.