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The “PC” Era Finally Arrives

Lee Hower
October 17, 2011 · 2  min.

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Steve Jobs’s passing reminded me of one of his sayings, that we’ve now entered a “post PC era” of computing. What he and others have meant is of course that the desktop computer is losing its preeimance as the primary computing platform with the rise of smartphones and tablets at one end and cloud computing (in all its forms) at the other.

It’s ironic because in a way, the era of “personal computing” has only just arrived.  What we refer to as the PC era (the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000’s) was not just the desktop phase era but more accurately a desktop corporate computing era.  The bulk of spending on PC-related computing (desktop computers, software, networking gear, etc) in the ’80s and ’90s was made by businesses large and small.  The monster companies that were built during this era had consumer facing brands but made most of their money selling to businesses… Microsoft, Intel, Dell, Compaq, et al.  Even companies that primarily sold server side products (Oracle, EMC) were able to do so because there was a desktop computer in every corporate cubicle, manufacturing station, and retail point of sale.

Even in the consumer space, desktop computers were typically a “home computer” shared by all occupants until very recently.  In the ’80s a home computer was the preserve of wealthy and upper middle class families. The ’90s saw broader adoption by the middle class but even in 1995 only 28% of US households had a computer (US Census / Pegasus Research).  It was only in 2000 that a majority of of US homes had a computer.

Thanks to Moore’s law and efforts by various corporate (e.g. Comcast’s Internet Essentials program), education, and non-profit initiatives a broad swath of the American public now has a broadband connected computer at home. Multi-computer homes are the norm in the middle class.  And of course smartphones and tablets are now fulling the promise of a computer in every pocket.  

It’s not just the installed base of hardware… it’s also a mindset shift that’s just now becoming pervasive.  I’ve been fortunate to have had my own computer for a couple decades now and a smartphone for over 5 years. But only now is it commonplace to see regular (e.g. non startup/VC types) folks decorate their laptop with stickers, personalize their smartphones with covers/wallpaper/ringtones, and generally consider one or more computing devices a highly personal item that’s a ubiquitous part of their life.  

The era of personal computing has finally arrived.  The second order impacts to the entire technology industry are in their early innings… not just the complete digitization of consumer media, but also the “consumerization” of business software, the BYOD movement in corporate IT, the evolution of the computer/human interface.  

To Steve Jobs and the other innovators, we can only say thanks.  

Lee Hower
Lee is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has spent his entire career as an entrepreneur and investor in early-stage software and internet startups.