The final line of the Apple iPad commercial last November was probably to provoke a reaction, and it was successful. After riding a bicycle around the city using an iPad Pro to do his homework and generally hanging out with friends, a teenage neighbor asks him what he's doing on his computer.
Your answer: "What is a computer?"
Many people found it presumptuous, if not downright exasperating. I think that reaction is fascinating. I found the entire announcement quite harmless. That final line seemed more like an Apple wink than a manifesto. Of course, she would know the answer to "what is a computer?" The goal of the ad was to be ironic. It worked for me completely, but mainly because I've been thinking so much about the future of computing that I never took the last line seriously.
This is what that line is saying, and why I think it irritated people: it is saying that the iPad Pro is so successful in replacing all those other devices, which is so clearly the winner of the future of computing, that our old ideas about what a computer is not only wrong, they are irrelevant.
But, of course, none of that is completely true. What will define "post-PC" surely (hopefully) will not be defined solely by the iPad. If you really ask the question "what is a computer?" Honestly, the answers end up being easy. Is it a processor, RAM, storage, input and screen? Is it a "bicycle for the mind"?
From an angle, anything you can think of with a chip counts as a computer, your phone, your thermostat, but we all basically know what we mean when we talk about a computer. And I love that Apple is willing to make fun of those assumptions.
I also love that the iPad challenges our assumptions about how a computer should work. Apple does not have a monopoly in that regard, however. There is also, of course, the Surface Pro tablet (or is it a laptop now?) And Chromebooks with Android apps.
All of them, in their different forms, challenge the status quo of computers. Is a keyboard with clamshell really necessary? Do I need a mouse pointer? Are the right windows necessary? Do you need the ability to install any application you want outside of a fenced App Store garden? Do applications need broad access to do what they want or can they be banned in certain secure environments by the operating system?
Some of those assumptions (actually, they are complex) are worthwhile, but as they begin to accumulate, I begin to feel increasingly uncomfortable. If we are going to try to define the future of computing, it seems worthwhile to demand that we cling to some babies while discarding the water from the bathtub.
Here are my babies, at least to the extent that we are talking about computers with screens:
They are safe and are updated automatically.
They run modern applications (read: mobile, compatible with batteries).
They also offer more full-featured applications with wider access to the computer,
They. To have. Touchscreens.
I understand that points two and three are completely in conflict. I also understand that these points are vaguely defined at best. But hey, if Apple can casually ask "What's a computer?", That's my first casual cut in an answer.