Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What’s So Personal About a Personal Computer?

There is a lot of buzz in the computer business about the “death of the PC.” In a sense, this talk is an overreaction. The product category as a whole is still selling at a pace within 10 percent of its all-time high. In another sense, though, it is a conversation whose time has come. The concept of the personal computer has been stretched in so many directions that there is not much left.

The way we use personal computers has changed so much I am not sure either the term or the design concept still fits. Consider these changes that have come along since 1998:

  • Logging in. Regardless of where your operating system software is from, you can’t start using a personal computer in 2012 until you create an account for yourself. This also means you need to assign yourself a user ID and password.
  • Sharing. The user account feature of operating systems makes it easy to share a computer with other people in your household or office.
  • Remote backup. If you choose, you can have your computer files automatically copied to a remote server. This allows you to recover the files even if the computer itself is completely lost.
  • Lockdown. Since about 2000 most personal computers used in business settings have been locked down, to prevent the user from installing or removing software or changing settings.
  • Spyware. Businesses routinely install security software, including spyware, to keep track of what users are doing on computers.
  • USB Lockout. Some more security-conscious businesses may install software to prevent users from connecting any hardware more consequential than a keyboard or mouse. Part of the idea is to make it impossible to copy files to USB flash drives.
  • Automatic updates. A personal computer may automatically check a central server for changes in software. Or, especially in a business setting, the server may install and delete software on the personal computer, whether the user likes it or not.
  • Television. You can now watch television programs on a personal computer, almost as if you were watching cable. Similarly, you can watch video programming on DVD.
  • IMAP. In the past, using the POP3 standard, email was delivered to your personal computer. Now most of us use the IMAP standard that stores the email content on a server.
  • Hub. The desktop computer increasingly serves as a hub to connect mobile devices such as portable computers, phones, music players, and cameras, along with traditional computer peripherals such as scanners and printers. In this role, the computer acts as a server.

What’s so “personal” about any of this? For most of us, our use of personal computers is not nearly so personal as it was in the 1990s and 1980s, at least when it comes to the hardware itself. What is the real difference, then, between a personal computer and any other computer? How much difference does it make if you share a “personal” computer? Is it perhaps time to stop thinking of the PC as a personal device?