Ray Ozzie’s recent blog entry caught my eye.  Before I comment on his erudition, I should mention for those of you who are not Microsoft fan-boys that Ray Ozzie is (or was) the Microsoft Chief Software Architect.  This is a position once held by Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, so it is not a job that is easy to get, and I have read that there is some discussion about whether it will be filled when Ray Ozzie leaves. 

Okay, so what caught my attention is Ray’s reference to a “post-PC” world.  Will PC’s really be replaced with ubiquitous mobile devices? Will we all have special purpose computing devices that perform some functions particularly well, while performing other functions begrudgingly so?  Or is this just the musings of an engineer looking for a a new market to focus on?

There is no doubt that the age of the Smartphone has arrived, and we have begun to see some traction with tablet computer devices as well.  And I have personally witnessed those who reluctantly engage the use of a PC, drawn to the use of a Smartphone for browsing, much like those of us who spend hours sitting in a chair staring at a display, because of the endless array of tasks that can be accomplished without moving.  But will this Smartphone or other mobile devices like it, actually supplant the PC as the world’s most popular computing device?

There is no doubt that there are far more cell phones in the world than there are PC’s.  But a much smaller percentage of these users are Smartphone users, so I don’t think we can simply say that the Smartphone is the archetype of the post-PC world.  So what will the post-PC world look like?  Ray’s assertion is:

“We’re moving toward a world of 1) cloud-based continuous services that connect us all and do our bidding, and 2) appliance-like connected devices enabling us to interact with those cloud-based services.”

I am reminded of the old Sun Computing advertising slogan, that the “Network is the Computer”, where the connection itself (and the associated services) is what defines the usefulness of the device.  Clearly Sun was right, and the creation of these continuous services is an evolutionary process that will continue to unfold for years to come.  But I am intrigued by the question of what the connected devices will look.  I can imagine all manner of from factors from vehicle mounted systems, to displays embedded in eye glasses, many of which are in use today.  It occurs to me though that this is the wrong question.  Perhaps instead of asking ourselves what the device of the post-PC world will look like, we should be asking ourselves what the post-PC user will look like. 

There is a percentage of the user community who reads the specification for a particular device, compares the alternatives, and makes their purchase.  Essentially these users are letting the device select them.  It is my contention that there is a much larger percentage of the user community that could care less about the device and would rather just to do something useful with as little effort as possible.  Essentially they only select a device, if it will serve its intended function.  It is these user’s that are often neglected by the technology businesses that seek to evolve their existing devices to accommodate the latest connected service.  If we were to start from scratch, and focus primarily on the user, what would a device look like in the world of continuous services?  Would it look like a PC?

From this perspective it is the user that is the force of nature driving the survival of the fittest device.I think that for many users then, this means that the PC will remain relevant, because there will always be users that must use their computer to accomplish work that is best served by being seated for extended periods of time at a desk or something like it.  The PC has survived decades of evolution and is the fittest device for this use case.  Clearly other use cases have begun to emerge and today’s crop of Smartphones will be tested in the wilds of the user ecosystem.  The form these device take will vary as the fittest device is selected, but this will not occur at the exclusion of the PC.  Indeed there will always be some form of PC, or desk bound computing device, as we have not seen the end of their evolution.