When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad in 2010, he announced that the post-PC era was upon us. A few months later at the D8 conference, Jobs expanded on that, saying that personal computers would remain static but with much diminishing capacity, saying “they will be used by one person out of X people.” Most people will use tablets as their primary computing device.
After more than a decade, it’s clear that the PC isn’t going away. The iPad is undoubtedly a very successful Apple product, but few manage to get serious work done on a single device. Also, despite its ever-growing list of capabilities, the iPad still can’t do everything that Macs can.
iPad Pro pretending to be a MacBook
Speaking of, Macs have entered a post-PC era of sorts. “PC” is a generic term now, but it comes from the IBM PC – a small computer based on the Intel 8086. It didn’t have the graphical skills like the Amiga or the Macintosh, but it became very popular. Competing companies reversed engineering design, creating “compliant PCs,” which led to the global dominance of the x86 platform.
At the time, Apple was using Motorola 68000 processors, which were considered fast until Intel came out with the Pentium. Apple will switch from Motorola processors to PowerPC. Then history repeated itself and Intels bested the best PowerPC chips, prompting Apple to switch another platform, this time to Intel. The company recently went through what may be its latest platform switch as it replaced almost the entire Mac lineup with Apple silicon-powered computers. In this way, Macs – and some iPads – entered a post-PC era of sorts.
Apple is still quite reluctant to allow iPads to act like desktop computers. The latest iPad Pros are powered by the same Apple M1 chip found on some Macs, but iPadOS holds back that platform. Ironically, macOS can run iOS/iPadOS apps, but the reverse isn’t true. Therefore, the PC – as in the case of a desktop computer or laptop computer – is still ahead of the curve on tablets.
Other companies had a different approach in the post-PC era – smartphones would replace PCs to become computers. Microsoft did just that with Windows Continuum, a feature on Lumia phones that runs a standard Windows 10 desktop environment when connected to an external monitor. Add a keyboard and mouse and you’ll edit your Excel spreadsheet like the best of them all.
While Apple implemented its platform transitions flawlessly, Microsoft struggled a bit. Windows RT was an attempt to bring the Windows 8 platform to ARM, but it proved futile. Windows 10 is much better in this regard as it can run x86 software on ARM hardware – the lack of compatible software has hampered RT certification (most software written for Windows was based on x86). However, by the time Windows 10 arrived, it was too late for Lumias and Continuum to lose their starting point.
These days, Microsoft is getting close to the other side – Windows 11 has native support for Android apps. The company has even partnered with Amazon to secure a relatively well-stocked app store. Microsoft has a plethora of apps for Android and even makes use of your Android phone occasionally.
Android apps now work on Windows • Android and Windows apps side by side
Not that the Microsoft Surface Duo was particularly successful, nor is it a sequel to it. But Windows in such a small format is clearly going to be dead for now. We say that because no one has heard of the Surface Neo in two years. It was a dual-screen device like the Duo, but it would have run the now-defunct Windows 10X instead of Android.
Many other companies have gotten involved in the use of the desktop in the pocket concept. Let’s start with Motorola and Atrix phones.
The Motorola ATRIX was introduced in early 2011 and was powered by the Nvidia Tegra 2 chipset. It had two Cortex-A9 cores (1.0 GHz), 1 GB of RAM, and a GeForce GPU. The phone runs Android 2.2 Froyo out of the box, with Motoblur UI. But that’s not why we’re here.
Two platforms promised to turn ATRIX into a computer. One was the Laptop Dock, a hollow 11.6-inch laptop sleeve that provides a keyboard, touchpad, speakers, and a 36Wh battery, along with some extended connections (two full-size USB-A ports).
When docked, the phone was running the desktop version of Firefox, complete with Adobe Flash support. You can surf the modern web – well, it was in 2011. Add-ons are also supported, so you can extend the functionality of the browser, but you can not install other desktop applications. Instead, I was limited to running Android apps on a mirrored copy of my phone screen or web apps.
There was also the HD Multimedia Dock, which was intended for desktop use. Provides a mini HDMI port for connection to an external monitor, three USB ports, and an IR remote control. The entertainment center handled multimedia playback and there was a native file browser.
ATRIX was a project as ambitious as the ports. But few found the laptop worth its $500 price tag ($300 if you get it with an ATRIX), and even the HD dock wasn’t very popular despite its $100 low price tag. Firefox ran on the Tegra 2 chip and the software wasn’t ready. In fact, Android still struggles with resizable apps, so it was difficult to order the free-form desktop environment from Froyo.
2011 was a big year, it also saw the introduction of the Asus EEE Pad Transformer TF101. We’ve already covered the Transformers story in detail. It culminated with the Asus PadFone – a phone that could fit into a tablet dock, which in turn could be connected to a keyboard dock. A phone, a tablet and a laptop, all nested together like matryoshka dolls.
The phone’s 4.3-inch AMOLED display (540 x 960 pixels) has been expanded to a 10.1-inch LCD display (1280 x 800 pixels). The tablet dock added a 6,600mAh battery capacity, and the keyboard dock added the same (the phone itself only had a 1,520mAh power cell).
Well, why are manufacturers trying to take the computer experience out of smartphones? See List of Materials (BOM) for a typical phone. The chipset, RAM and storage together tend to be the most expensive part of a phone. And these are exactly the things that the Atrix and Transformer dock have skipped. Wireless components cost about the same and Motorola and Asus were selling always-connected experiences — few laptops back then (and now) had a mobile data connection built in.
Therefore, (some) sidewalks have screens and they are also somewhat expensive. But the dock still skips two-thirds of the expensive components that go into a laptop. Then the docks make financial sense, right?
From the manufacturer’s point of view, sure. However, consumers were never convinced by this idea. The ATRIX Laptop Dock costs as much as a non-powered laptop (and as you know, the ATRIX wasn’t a speed demon), so people bought one of those.
We live in the future now. Samsung DeX – the eXperience desktop experience – is a fully capable system that provides a convenient desktop environment with multiple scalable and nested windows. It doesn’t even need a dock most of the time, a lot of new monitors have a dock built in, so all you need is a USB-C cable. DeX works with wireless screen mirroring as well, so even a cable isn’t a difficult requirement. And Samsung tablets can run DeX as a native interface, so you don’t even need an external monitor.
Samsung DeX works on Galaxy S9
Motorola is back with Ready For, and it also works over USB-C. Whether you’re using it for productivity or gaming on a big screen, with much faster processors, and enhanced software and services like game streaming, the concept of a phone as a PC does better than ever.
New Motorola phones with Ready For feature mark the rebirth of ATRIX
Asus is back, too, and is offering an amazing variety of docks for its ROG phones. Some focus on games, such as Twin View Dock 3, others on desktop and productivity games such as Mobile Desktop Dock.
Some of the many docks for Asus ROG phones
Huawei has its own version of the desktop environment as well, even if we don’t see its phones as often as we used to.
Has the post-PC era finally arrived? Only if you like it. The thing is, even without the need for a dock, you still need a big screen. If you need to carry it, you can also carry a tablet or laptop. If you expect to find one on site when you arrive, what if you don’t? Or if there is already a computer (as in most offices)?
Apple M1 chips work on both macOS and iPadOS. Snapdragon chips run on Windows, not just Android. The CPU, RAM, and storage are still some of the most expensive parts of a smartphone or computer. These things haven’t changed, but neither have the negative aspects of dock life.
The funny thing is that computers are starting to absorb the features of a smartphone just as quickly as smartphones are doing the opposite. Instead of one branch of personal computing killing the other, they would likely coalesce into one class of powerful hardware. We don’t quite know what that will look like, but as long as it’s not a Google Glass-style headset, we’ll be happy. Foldable phones (and laptops) may be the best option.