Pivoting Linux in a Post-PC world

Post PC is hot, but not the only path forward

76 percent.

That's the percentage of Apple's revenue generated by the sale of its iPod, iPhone, and iPad devices: what CEO Tim Cook refers to as their post-PC product line.

Cook revealed this figure as part of the ramp-up pitch for the new iPad last week, and emphasized (as one might expect at an launch event for what has proven to be the most popular tablet in computing history) Apple's commitment to a post-PC future.

There has been a lot of attention paid to Cook's statements, and not just because of iPad marketing hype. Just today, for instance, a report went over the wire about the analysts over at Gartner predicting that the "Personal cloud will replace personal computer"--with the idea that corporate data will be stored in the cloud and accessed through "smartphones, tablets, and other consumer devices."

In other words, post PC hardware.

The idea of post PC has been brewing for some time, even here in the Linux community.

The success of Android, both commercially and as a target of lawsuits (because you're not really successful until someone sues you, it seems), is predicated on the notion of the post-PC world.

Closer to Linux home, the moves of Canonical have been analyzed to death as a clear path towards this post-PC world. The Plasma community's Spark tablet project, Mozilla's Boot to Gecko, and the MeeGo-Tizen-whatever-they're-calling-it-this-month Linux Foundation project are all additional Linux pioneers into this post-PC world.

I am of two minds about this whole notion of post PC. On the one hand, I freely admit that these sorts of devices are very useful to get work done on the fly. There have been countless times I have checked e-mail, read a document, even posted grades for a class from a post-PC device: exactly the kind of work one would expect could get done on such hardware. I have even written articles on such content, though it's not my favorite thing to do, mostly because I crave ergonomic keyboards to do a lot of content creation.

But (and you knew this was coming), I also wonder how much real work--the kind we do on our PCs, regardless of operating system--can get done on these devices. When all is said and done, every post-PC device has a singular, common feature, no matter what operating system it uses: they all have one single screen that displays one app at a time.

And that, I would argue, is going to be a huge roadblock for productivity.

Indeed, while all of this post-PC hype is going on, I keep reading articles that suggest that the use of multiple monitors for business PCs is on the increase, which suggests that more people are stretching their attention across multiple apps in the workplace. This trend, if it is a real trend, would seem to run very counter to the idea of a single-screen post-PC device.

I offer myself as one anecdote. When I am wearing my writer's hat, using a single screen is not that bad. In fact, it's preferred, since getting distracted by something on Twitter or in my Inbox is not conducive to getting words on the screen.

But when the researcher's hat is on, then having multiple windows open becomes much more of a necessity. If I am doing my personal and business finances, multiple windows are essential. Different jobs have different requirements, and a single-screen-only interface will not meet all my jobs' requirements.

At this point, it is very likely that a usability expert will swoop in and tell me that I am Doing It Wrong and that I (and the rest of corporate PC users) will simply have to get used to the post-PC world and adapt our habits accordingly. Perhaps. We've done it before, after all, since PCs aren't exactly a natural way of doing things.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that there's about to be a bit of pushback on the post-PC revolution, as a lot of PC workers start resisting the idea of trying to get most or all of their work done on a post-PC device. Some, yes, but all?

Surprisingly, it may be Microsoft that will lead this counter-revolution. Their entry into the post-PC world, Windows 8, is such a farrago that they may, in order to salvage their Windows and oh-so-lucrative Office product lines, start to push a corporate-aimed marketing campaign aimed at a Windows-7 like platform (or Windows 8 sans the Metro UI) that will emphasize getting work done.

Either way, with Apple locked in to their post PC trajectory, and Microsoft trying to play catch-up so they don't get blocked out of this sector (again), this could represent a unique opportunity for Linux: the chance to provide a clean, "traditional" desktop environment that would, through native and Web apps, provide corporate workers with the kind of PC environment they're used to.

The cool thing is, Linux is well-positioned for this kind of move. For all the times I have poked the big commercial vendors for their constant emphasis on the enterprise while ignoring the small-business sector, the fact is that a corporate desktop could easily be marketed to those very same enterprise customers. The channel is already there.

It's a stretch, of course, because I would imagine that Microsoft and Apple could likely pivot back to the corporate desktop if they had to. But it would certainly be funny if, while Microsoft and Apple were off chasing each other for post-PC land grabs, Linux vendors could slide into territories now ignored by these companies.

Post-PC is not the only way to go, and Linux vendors and designers should keep an eye out for other opportunities in the days ahead.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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