Release Notes: What Exactly Is a Personal Computer?

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If I asked you in 1993, “What’s a PC?”, you’d probably have pointed to the beige box sitting under your desk at work. In 1999, if I asked you the same question, the odds are good that you’d have shown me a grey box in your den. In 2005, you would probably have shown me a shiny new notebook. But, as I sit here in 2009, I’m finding it difficult to answer this seemingly simple question.

Sitting on my desk, I have four extremely powerful computing devices, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Let’s decide which of these are personal computers together.

Machine A features four CPU cores, and a host of GPUs and coprocessors. Machine B is more modest, with three CPU cores and a decent GPU. Machine C is even more modest, with a dual-core CPU, but a woefully inadequate GPU. Machine D pushes a lot of its workload onto dedicated processors, but still sports a dedicated GPU.

So, what’s all this powerful hardware? A home-built gaming PC, an Xbox 360, a Lenovo X200s notebook, and an iPhone 3GS.

The gaming rig and the notebook clearly fit the classical definition of a PC, but what about the iPhone and Xbox 360? I’m not sure. Let’s see if we can figure out what gives a device its essential PC-ness.

In the old days, it was safe to say that an Intel CPU and a Microsoft OS made your computer a PC. But now other types of hardware and software are gaining ground on the WinTel duopoly. What makes my machines PCs is that they’re platforms —constructs that allow me to run software that does what I need, assuming it follows the basic rules of the platform. Network connectivity is key, as well. Without a connection to the net, computers are much less valuable. For the most part, I use my four PCs to browse the web, communicate with friends, play games, and work.

Does the Xbox 360 meet my essential PC-ness test? It’s definitely a platform that I use to play games and watch video, and it’s connected to the Internet. However, it’s a locked system, so I can only run Microsoft-authorized software on it and connect Microsoft-authorized hardware to it. I can’t write a word processor for Xbox 360 because Microsoft wouldn’t let me run it. Clearly, the Xbox 360 isn’t a personal computer.

The iPhone is a tougher question. It’s a closed platform, but there are mechanisms that let me run apps from a finite, but very large pool. The device is net-connected 24/7, and I find myself using my iPhone for many of the tasks that I once exclusively used a PC for. This is a new class of device that we call the smartphone—but I’d be hard pressed to describe a more personal computer than the one that I carry in my pocket with me everywhere.

Could you?

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