When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad in 2010, he declared that the Post-PC era is upon us. A few months later at the D8 conference, Jobs expanded on this, saying that computers would remain but in a much reduced capacity, saying that “they will be used by like one in X people”. Most people will use tablets as their primary computing device.
More than a decade later it is clear that the computer is not going away. The iPad is a very successful product for Apple no doubt, but few manage to do serious work on one. Also, despite an ever-growing list of capabilities, the iPad still can’t do everything Macs can.
iPad Pro pretending it’s a MacBook
Speaking of, the Macs did enter a post-PC era of sorts. “PC” is a generic term now, but it comes from the IBM PC – a microcomputer based on the Intel 8086. It didn’t have the graphics capabilities of an Amiga or a Macintosh, but it became quite popular. Competing companies reversed the design, creating “PC compatibles”, which led to the world domination of the x86 platform.
At the time, Apple used Motorola 68000 processors, which were considered fast until Intel came out with the Pentium. Apple would switch from Motorola to PowerPC processors. Then history repeated itself and Intels surpassed the best PowerPC chips, leading Apple to another platform switch, to Intel this time. Recently the company went through what may be its last platform change as it replaced nearly its entire Mac lineup with computers powered by Apple silicon. In this way, the Macs – and some iPads – entered a kind of Post-PC era.
Apple, however, is quite reluctant to allow iPads to behave like desktop computers. The most recent iPad Pros are powered by the same Apple M1 chip as found in some Macs, but iPadOS retains that platform. Ironically, macOS can run iOS/iPadOS apps, but the opposite is not true. So, the PC – as in desktop or laptop – is still ahead of the curve over tablets.
Other companies had a different approach to the Post-PC era – smartphones would replace PCs by becoming PCs. Microsoft did just that with Windows Continuum, a feature on Lumia phones that ran a standard Windows 10 desktop environment when connected to an external display. Add a keyboard and mouse and you’re editing an Excel spreadsheet like the best of them.
While Apple has executed its platform transitions flawlessly, Microsoft has struggled quite a bit. Windows RT was an attempt to bring the Windows 8 platform to ARM, but it proved to be a failure. Windows 10 is much better in this regard, as it can run x86 software on ARM hardware – the lack of compatible software really hindered RT adoption (most software ever written for Windows was x86 based). However, when Windows 10 arrived, it was too late for the Lumias and Continuum lost its place on the stage.
Currently Microsoft is approaching from the other side – Windows 11 has native support for Android applications. The company even partnered with Amazon to secure a relatively well-stocked app store. Microsoft has a large suite of apps for Android and even dabbles in the occasional Android phone.
Android apps now run on Windows • Android and Windows apps side by side
Not that the Microsoft Surface Duo was particularly successful, nor was its sequel. But it is clear that Windows in portable format will remain dead for now. We say that because no one has heard of the Surface Neo in a few years. It was a dual-screen device like the Duo, but it would run the now-discontinued Windows 10X instead of Android.
Several other companies have dabbled in the desktop in pocket concept. Let’s start with Motorola and the Atrix phones.
The Motorola ATRIX came out in early 2011 and was powered by an Nvidia Tegra 2 chipset. It had two Cortex-A9 cores (1.0 GHz), 1 GB of RAM and a GeForce GPU. The phone ran Android 2.2 Froyo out of the box, skinned with Motoblur UI. But that’s not why we’re here.
Two docks promised to turn the ATRIX into a computer. One was the Laptop Dock, a hollowed-out 11.6″ laptop shell that offered a keyboard, touchpad, speakers and a 36 WHr battery, along with some expanded connectivity (two full-size USB-A ports).
Docked, the phone ran a desktop version of Firefox, complete with Adobe Flash support. You could browse the modern web – well, as modern as it was in 2011. Add-ons were also supported, so you could extend the browser’s functionality, but you couldn’t install other desktop apps. You were instead limited to running Android apps on a mirrored version of the phone’s screen or web apps.
There was also the HD Multimedia Dock, which was intended for desktop use. It offered a mini-HDMI port to connect to an external display, three USB ports and an IR remote control. The Entertainment Center handled multimedia playback and there was a native file browser.
The ATRIX was an ambitious project as was the port. But few found the Laptop Dock to be worth its $500 price ($300 if you get it bundled with the ATRIX), even the HD dock wasn’t very popular despite its lower $100 price. Firefox torched the Tegra 2 -chip and the software just wasn’t ready. In fact, Android still struggles with resizable apps, so a shapeless desktop environment was too much to ask of Froyo.
2011 was quite a year, it also saw the introduction of the Asus EEE Pad Transformer TF101. We’ve already covered the history of the Transformers in detail. It culminated with the Asus PadFone – a phone that could go into a tablet dock, which in turn could be attached to a keyboard dock. Phone, tablet, laptop, all nested together like matryoshka dolls.
The Asus PadFone is the smartphone version of a Matryoshka doll
The phone’s 4.3″ AMOLED screen (540 x 960px) has been expanded to a 10.1″ LCD (1,280 x 800px). The tablet dock added 6,600 mAh battery capacity, the keyboard dock added the same amount (the phone itself only had a 1,520 mAh power cell).
OK, so why did manufacturers try to squeeze a PC experience out of smartphones? View the Bill of Materials (BOM) for a typical phone. The chipset, RAM and storage together tend to be the most expensive part of the phone. And those are exactly the things that the Atrix and Transformer docks skipped over. The wireless connectivity components cost almost as much and Motorola and Asus sold always-connected experiences – few laptops then (and now) have built-in mobile data connectivity.
So, (some of) the docks did have screens and those are pretty expensive too. But a dock still leaves out 2/3 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 never really bought the idea. The ATRIX Laptop Dock cost as much as a sub-par laptop (and as established, the ATRIX was no speed demon), so people just bought one of those.
We live in the future now. Samsung’s DeX – Desktop eXperience – is quite a capable system that does offer a proper desktop environment with multiple resizable and overlapping windows. It doesn’t even need a dock most of the time, many new monitors have a dock built in, so all you need is a USB-C cable. DeX also works with wireless screen mirroring, so even the cable is not a difficult requirement. And Samsung tablets can run DeX as their native interface, so you don’t even need an external display.
Samsung DeX works on Galaxy S9
Motorola is back with Ready For, also working with USB-C. Whether you’re using it for productivity or for gaming on a big screen, with much faster processors, improved software and services like game streaming, the phone-as-computer concept works better than ever.
Motorola’s new phones with Ready For are the rebirth of the ATRIX
Asus is also back, and offers a dizzying variety of docks for its ROG phones. Some focus on gaming, like the Twin View Dock 3, others on desktop gaming and productivity like the Mobile Desktop Dock.
Some of the many docks for Asus ROG Phones
Huawei has its own version of a desktop environment as well, even if we don’t see its phones as often as we used to.
Has the post-PC age finally arrived? Only if you wanted it to. The thing is, even without needing 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 there (as in most offices)?
Apple M1 chips run both macOS and iPadOS. Snapdragon chips run Windows, not just Android. The CPU, RAM and storage are still some of the most expensive parts of a smartphone or computer. Those things haven’t changed, but neither have the negative sides of dock life.
The funny thing is that computers have started absorbing smartphone functions as fast as smartphones are doing the opposite. Instead of one branch of personal computing killing the other, they are likely to merge into a single omnipotent class of device. We don’t quite know what that will look like, but as long as it’s not a Google Glass-style headset, we’d be happy. Foldable phones (and laptops) may prove to be the better option.