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After 30 years, is the IBM PC reign ending?

Thirty years ago, the International Business Machines company introduced its first general-purpose personal computer, the 5150. (The IBM 5100 and DisplayWriter were also personal computing devices, but most people don’t count them as a first.)

Although I have written about August 1981, I would have forgotten about the anniversary except my friend Tom Pfaeffle linked a BBC article on his Facebook account. Most significantly, the article cited a blog posting by Mark Dean, an IBM executive who was there at the beginning:

It’s amazing to me to think that August 12 marks the 30th anniversary of the IBM Personal Computer. The announcement helped launch a phenomenon that changed the way we work, play and communicate. Little did we expect to create an industry that ultimately peaked at more than 300 million unit sales per year. I’m proud that I was one of a dozen IBM engineers who designed the first machine and was fortunate to have lead subsequent IBM PC designs through the 1980s.

What’s grabbing the attention is Dean’s claim that we’re already in the post-PC era:

It may be odd for me to say this, but I’m also proud IBM decided to leave the personal computer business in 2005, selling our PC division to Lenovo. While many in the tech industry questioned IBM’s decision to exit the business at the time, it’s now clear that our company was in the vanguard of the post-PC era.

I, personally, have moved beyond the PC as well. My primary computer now is a tablet. When I helped design the PC, I didn’t think I’d live long enough to witness its decline. But, while PCs will continue to be much-used devices, they’re no longer at the leading edge of computing. They’re going the way of the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records, CRT and incandescent light bulbs.

The remainder of the posting goes on to discuss IBM’s success in the “post-PC era” and his own career trajectory from IBM Research to become CTO for IBM’s Middle East and Africa operations in Dubai.

I wonder if the claims of the post-PC era are a bit premature. I own a tablet too, but I’m writing this on a (Mac) personal computer because it has a bigger screen and a keyboard. It’s possible that we’re heading to the post-Windows, post-Mac era — one where the personal computers have a slightly different form factor but a new (smartphone or tablet) OS.

Still, as Tim Bresnahan and Shane Greenstein established in the late 20th century, computing platforms decline (or die) only when replaced another platform. So the idea that the PC will be replaced by something new is nothing new, but just another round of Schumpeterian revolution that claimed minicomputers and workstations — not to mention the mainframe businesses of the BUNCH.

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