A PC by any other name

The new broke recently that Apple is now the world’s #1 PC manufacturer, which it achieved through massive iPad sales. Of course, this has led to a bit of debate whether the iPad really deserves to be classified as a PC or not. The iPad is undoubtedly both personal and a computer, but it still doesn’t seem like a “PC” to many people. Some die-hards point out that the iPad’s lack of “true” multitasking, file system, and keyboard disqualify it, but equally ardent are those who manage to use an iPad for their everyday computing needs.

To me, this harkens back to the days of the original Mac, when command line aficionados discounted the newfangled GUI and mouse as useless toys. Or when the iPhone was introduced but many people refused to call it a smartphone because it couldn’t install third-party apps. There’s always a pushback against new tech, and the iPad is certainly no exception. While it’s true that the iPad can’t perform many complex tasks that a modern laptop can, neither could many other technology breakthroughs in their early days.

The nebulous definition of a PC lies at the heart of this debate. Whether one considers a glass slab to be a PC or not depends on one’s concept of a “Personal Computer.” Looking at a dictionary (the New Oxford American), we get:

personal computer |ˈpərs(ə)n(ə)l kəmˈpjudər|
a computer designed for use by one person at a time.

Seems pretty clear to me. If a person can use it by themselves, it’s a PC. Terry Lucy of The Bro Show makes a great point about another definition of “personal.”

What’s personal about working on a spreadsheet? Writing some code? There is absolutely nothing personal about the PC I use for nine hours a day at work — it’s a processing machine. That definition of personal computer above is one of the most robotic definitions I have ever read, thinking about it. It doesn’t make any sense on a personal level.

This interpretation pretty much guarantees the iPad’s inclusion, but it’s also a slippery slope. The iPhone, iPod touch, and any smartphone would probably fit this description. Are those all PCs too? When Windows 8 tablets hit the market, they’ll be counted as well, right? Only time will tell, but my personal hunch is that the term “PC” is on its way out entirely. For years it’s been the de-facto term for a Windows box, and Apple even played off that with its Mac-vs-PC ads. That’s narrowed and weakened the expression. Just as calling the iPhone a “smartphone” seems a little odd, the iPad resists categorization by today’s terms. I suspect that we’ll come up with a better moniker for devices like these, probably just in time to retire them for the next crop of gadgets.

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