Apple’s Post-PC Strategy

Everything Apple did from January 9th, 2001 up until January 26th, 2010 revolved around the Digital Hub strategy. In his now-famous Macworld 2001 keynote, Steve Jobs quoted Walt Mossberg, the technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Mike Capellas, then-CEO of Compaq, and Jeff Weitzen, then-CEO of Gateway. All three of them basically said the PC was dying.  

But Jobs disparaged the thought and argued that the PC wasn’t dying — it was just evolving. He said that the PC would transform into a product that would become the hub for all of the new digital devices of the time: cell phones, CD players, MP3 players, camcorders, digital cameras, and PDAs. The PC, he insisted, was perfectly suited to the task because it had five unique features:

  1. PCs could run complex applications.
  2. PCs had big screens.
  3. PCs could burn CDs and DVDs.
  4. PCs had a lot of storage.
  5. PCs could get on the internet at very fast speeds.

Apple ended up releasing two revolutionary products that proved Jobs’s point. In late 2001, they released the iPod, which replaced the CD and MP3 player. Then, in 2007, they released the iPhone, which combined the PDA, the cell phone, the camcorder, and the digital camera all in one device. And neither the iPod nor the iPhone — both of which were released between January 9th, 2001 and January 26th, 2010 — could run complex applications, had big screens, could burn CDs and DVDs, had a lot of storage, or could get on the internet at a fast speed.

Because of those limitations, the PC was their hub. In the case of the iPod, you needed a PC to (1) rip your music to your hard drive and then (2) transfer the MP3 files to your iPod. It was even more central to the experience of the iPhone, since it transferred your music, movies, TV shows, contacts, calendars, photos, notes, bookmarks, and email accounts. The explosion of digital devices from 2001-2010 drove the rapid growth of PCs.

Past Eras

According to Jobs, the personal computer has gone through four different eras: the Prehistoric era, which lasted from 1976-1979, the Age of Productivity, which lasted from 1980-1994, the Age of the Internet, which lasted from 1995-2000, and the age of the Digital Lifestyle, which lasted from 2001-2010.

As Jobs said in his keynote, new eras come along when the innovation in one space starts waning and something new and exciting comes along that offers a breadth of new possibilities.

The new innovations of each era introduced more uses for the PC and propelled its use both at home and in business to previously unseen highs. In the Age of Productivity, word processing and eventually desktop publishing catalyzed the growth of the PC. In the Age of the Internet, it was applications like email and online search. Usage of the PC skyrocketed during the Age of the Digital Lifestyle because it was uniquely suited to add lots of value to small, digital devices. 

But over the last couple of years, innovation in the PC space has been slowing. We’ve seen some new things here and there, but, for the most part, they still do the same things they used to. Since the PC market is already saturated and there hasn’t been any new and earth-shattering innovations in the last few years, there’s little reason to upgrade. At the same time, devices that have traditionally been tethered to a PC have been slowly moving away from that direction. This has led us into a new era where PCs are slowly fading into irrelevance and new devices like the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad are stepping into the spotlight.

The Post-PC Era

Steve Jobs first hinted at this Post-PC era during a 2010 interview with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at the Wall Street Journal’s 8th annual All Things Digital conference. Nine months later, during the iPad 2 introduction, Jobs said that Apple actually has three Post-PC devices: the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.

When the iPod was first released it certainly wasn’t a Post-PC device. Even though it was built to listen to music, you needed a PC to put your music on it. But with the iPod touch — which was released six years after the original iPod and now constitutes more than half of all iPod sales — that’s not a problem. Now you can download music directly to your iPod, without ever touching a PC. You can also download movies, TV shows, and apps straight to your device. It works the exact same way with the iPhone, except that you can also download everything over 3G.

But the iPad was built from the ground up with a different set of priorities. It never transitioned from a device that centered around the PC to one that didn’t. From the beginning it’s been PC-agnostic. Yes, you need a PC to activate it, but if you don’t have a PC, that’s not a problem — an Apple store will set it up for you. After that you’re good to go. You can download everything directly to the device without ever touching a PC. The only two big things you can’t do on it are device activation and software updates. But, as John Gruber noted, that’s just a matter of time.


When Apple announced its October 20th “Back to the Mac” event on October 13th, everyone, as usual, tried guessing what the picture on the invite meant. But when Steve Jobs took the stage, it was extremely clear: “Mac OS X meets the iPad.” 

Apple scaled down Mac OS X to create iOS. They first used it in the iPhone and iPod touch and later put it on the iPad. He said Apple learned a lot from the iPad and wanted to put what they learned to use in Lion.

Apple, then, is betting the future of the company on some of the iPad’s concepts and ideas. During the Back to the Mac event Steve Jobs gave us some examples:

  • Multi-Touch gestures
  • An App Store
  • App home screens
  • Full screen apps
  • Auto save
  • Apps resume when launched

But slapping those features together doesn’t make a great product. The reason Apple was so successful over the last decade is because they had a single, coherent strategy that all of their products fit into. Back in 2001, Steve Jobs called it the “Digital Hub” strategy. And now it’s time for a new one.

The Average Person

This is how the average person buys a computer:

What’s the fastest computer I can get for $700?

Well, that depends. What do you do on your computer? Video editing? Because then you need a fast video card and a fast processor.

No, I just check my email and—

Do you store a lot of media on your computer?

What do you mean by media?

Pictures, videos, songs—

Oh, right. I have a lot of media.

250, 320, or 500 gigabytes worth?

I don’t know? I just want the fastest computer I can get for $700.

Well I was thinking you might want this computer over here. It’s built with the best parts and has lots of great features: 320 gigabytes of storage, a dual-core 2.33 gigahertz processor, and…

And that’s what Apple is trying to eliminate. They want to take what has traditionally been a technical decision and turn it into an emotional one. 

The average person doesn’t want to deal with all of that stuff. They just want a computer that works. To them it doesn’t matter how fast each individual component is — they want the computer as a whole to be fast. Who cares if that means the processor is dual-core or quad-core? Or if the hard drive is a flash-based SSD? Joe Schmoe doesn’t.

Apple realized that and decided not to play the spec game with Post-PC devices. They’re playing a different game altogether. This game starts and ends with the user experience and encompasses everything in between. In this game, Apple is wagering that:

  • Consumers don’t need access to the file system.
  • It’s better for every component to work perfectly together than to use the highest-performing components. Being vertically integrated and having a holistic approach to product design is key.
  • Tech specs don’t matter.
  • Computers don’t need to be fast — they need to feel fast.
  • The most important part of a computer is its software.
  • Touch-based computing is the future.
  • Computers shouldn’t have a steep learning curve, if there’s one at all.
  • People shouldn’t have to manually configure things — everything should work automatically.

And that’s where Apple’s new strategy comes into play.

Apple’s New Strategy

A crowd-sourced location database? Wi-Fi syncing? Social networking? They’re all just a small part of Apple’s new strategy to make the cloud the centerpiece of the Post-PC world.

In the Post-PC era, the cloud will essentially replace the PC as the “hub.” It’ll do everything the PC currently does, but it will also be capable of doing things the PC can’t. Apple’s strategy, in essence, will go from this to this.

Right now, if you buy a song on your iPhone and want to put it on your iPad, you have to (1) plug your iPhone into your computer, (2) right-click on the your iPhone in iTunes, (3) hit transfer purchases, (4) put in your password, (5) unplug your iPhone, (6) plug in your iPad, and (7) hit sync.

If you buy a song on your PC and want to put it on your iPad and iPhone, it’s not as bad, but it’s still way too complex. You have to plug one in, let it sync the song, wait for iTunes to perform a backup, unplug it, and then do the same thing with your other device.

It’s 2011. Our phones have more computing power than what it took to put a man on the moon. Why in the world does music syncing suck so much?

My guess is that it’s because of the licenses Apple has secured with the record companies. They probably love that Apple sells so much music and makes them a ton of money, but they must hate that Apple has so much bargaining power over them. For years, they’ve been giving competitors better terms in the hopes that one of them would grow large enough to give Apple a run for their money and, as a result, lessen their grip on the industry. But now that Amazon and Google have launched their own cloud-based music services without any special licenses — they argue that if a consumer buys a song, they should be able to listen to it anywhere, on any device — they’re quickly running back to Apple, probably giving them most of, if not all of, the terms they want.

And once Apple gets their terms — it looks like they already have — you can be sure they’re going to fix the syncing problem as soon as possible. They understand how bad it is. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve had a working solution for a while now but have been waiting for the go ahead from the music labels. The solution, as I see it, is either one of two things, both of which require a buy-the-song-once-and-download-it-as-many-times-as-you-need-to type of license, similar to how Apple manages the App Store:

  1. If you buy a song on your iPhone, you can open iTunes on your iPad and there’d be an “Available Downloads” button that would let you download the song to your iPad.
  2. Apple sends the song you buy to every device linked to your Apple ID.

Apple would probably much rather implement the second one, but pushing 5 MB files over the air (especially via 3G) would have serious battery life implications. So I think they’ll start with the first option and when Apple can make iPhones and iPod touches that get iPad-like battery life, they’ll switch to the second.

Another huge part of their new strategy will be to make syncing seamless. If you’re at work and add someone’s contact info to your iPhone, it’ll show up on your iPad. If you start watching a movie on your iPhone and its battery dies, you’ll be able to finish watching it on your iPad from the exact same spot, just in like Netflix’s app. And if you take a picture or video on your iPhone, it’ll automatically sync to your iPad, so you can edit it there, on its bigger screen. There won’t be a setup for any of this. Everything will sync via your Apple ID, similar to how iBooks works today.

Apple, of course, will also provide an API to let third-party apps use the syncing system, too. If you start playing Angry Birds on your iPhone, you’ll be able to resume playing it on your iPad. Or if you open Twitter on your iPhone at noon and read all of the tweets in your timeline, you’ll be able to open Twitter on your iPad later that day and read all of the tweets in your timeline from noon onward, rather than from when you last opened Twitter on your iPad.

As incredible as they all are, each one of these things – or any of the other possible uses you can imagine – isn’t worth much on their own. The value of a native, Dropbox-quality syncing system only adds up when you look at everything as a whole. Because then, and only then, will everything truly “just work.”