Apple and Microsoft’s Visions of the PC’s Future Aren’t the Same At All

July 12th, 2012

Tim Carmody argues that Apple’s and Microsoft’s visions for the future of computing are fundamentally the same:

That’s all “post-PC” means: a move from manual wired to automatic wireless connections between devices, where syncing, computing, and notifications can all be done through communication between client apps and backend services. It’s the end of the PC’s hegemony over the computing universe, not its death and decay. That’s what Jobs meant by it, and what Tim Cook means by it. Fundamentally, it means exactly the same thing as Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer and everyone else at Microsoft has always meant by “PC Plus.”

Carmody’s point is that both Apple and Microsoft’s vision is of many computing devices which we use to access our data through the Internet. That much is true, but Carmody misses the point. As John Gruber wrote today, Apple’s vision has little to do with what hardware or means of input we use. Those are details. Apple’s vision is to make computing so easy, so simple, that it doesn’t feel like we’re using “computers” at all in the sense we’ve been used to in the last couple decades, so people don’t have to think about which device they should use or how the application works—all they need to think about is what they’re trying to do.

I wrote this in April 2011:

The technology is a means to an end, and it is best hidden away, so the device’s purpose becomes one-and-the-same with the device itself. Apple’s vision for post-PC devices is not to make personal computers mobile. Apple’s vision is to make the technology so seamless, so effortless to use, that people forget they are even using a computer—so invisible that all people see is the web, or their book, or their movie.

Apple is seeking to make the technology irrelevant, so we can use these devices to do—to make, to create, to be inspired from. Don’t worry about what processor or display it has. Just read. Just write. Just draw. Just do.

That’s Apple’s vision for what the future of computing should look like. They have no religion on which form-factors or means of input are best—what’s best is whatever best achieves their goal.

Microsoft’s Metro user interface certainly could help do the same thing, but I don’t think it’s at all clear that Microsoft shares Apple’s intent. My impression, from Microsoft’s actions with Windows 8 and the Surface tablet, and the Surface event, is that Microsoft’s vision for the future is much as Carmody describes, but the PC also takes the form of a tablet that can switch between the normal Windows desktop environment with keyboard and mouse we’re used to, and the Metro interface—the power of the traditional PC and ease of use and convenience of touch-based tablets all in one device. In other words, Microsoft wants to retain the traditional PC as we’ve known it while allowing for an easier to use touch interface, too.

Perhaps Microsoft’s goal is to wean users off of the traditional keyboard-and-mouse-driven Windows interface and move them to a Metro interface that works well for touch and keyboard and mouse input. That’s possible, but that’s not how they presented the Surface at the June 19th event. Traditional Windows played a large role in the event and how they pitched the Intel version as being a “workstation with the power of a desktop PC” when docked with a desktop display. “No compromises” is what they promised.

Microsoft, then, is attempting to extend the PC into different areas through new form-factors while maintaining the PC interface (both software and hardware) as we’ve known it for its power. This fundamentally maintains the PC’s intent as we’ve known it, whereas Apple’s vision is to change it altogether.