In late 1974, tiny New Mexico calculator manufacturer MITS announced a $439 build-it-yourself gizmo called the Altair 8800 the first true "personal computer." A couple of young protogeeks named Bill Gates and Paul Allen got so excited that they founded a start-up called Micro-soft (yes, with a hyphen) to write software for it. They did rather well. So well, in fact, that most of us are still using PCs running Microsoft software 36 years later.
Along the way, multiple visions of a technological universe that didn't revolve around Microsoft-powered PCs failed to pan out. The U.S. Department of Justice sued Microsoft on antitrust grounds, eventually reaching a settlement intended to loosen Windows' iron grip on the operating-system market. It didn't. The makers of devices such as the New Internet Computer, i-Opener and Audrey thought they could wean consumers off PCs. They couldn't. Hyper-optimistic fans of the open-source operating system Linux kept expecting that the teeming masses would learn to love it. We haven't.
Lately, though, the future has come into focus. The PC isn't going to be replaced by anything. Instead, it's being replaced by ... everything. Rather than relying on one general-purpose machine, we're turning to an array of devices tailored to different scenarios and environments. And the Internet-connected screens in our lives just keep multiplying, from smart phones to tablets to e-readers to Web-savvy TVs and car dashboards.
Did I say the new devices are replacing the PC? My bad they're complementing it rather than rendering it obsolete. Earlier this month, market-research firm Gartner predicted that the iPad and its rivals will cut sharply into PC sales over the next few years. But it's not saying that the sales of traditional computers will shrink, just that they won't grow as robustly as they used to.
The great transition that's in progress was on my mind last week as I sat in the San Francisco theater where Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs interrupted his medical leave to introduce the iPad 2. Other than the details of the new tablet and the unexpected presence of Jobs, the most notable thing about the event was his repeated use of the phrase "post-PC." He used it in the present tense, applying it not only to the iPad 2 but also to its predecessor and four years' worth of iPhone models. He even classified the nearly decade-old iPod as a post-PC product. And when he detailed the genre's defining characteristics simplicity, intuitiveness and the seamless melding of software and hardware he could have been talking about the original 1984 Macintosh.
Throughout, Jobs' signature cocky ebullience was much on display and it didn't seem off the mark, considering Apple's commanding position in the market for post-PC devices. (For all the noise other companies have made lately, "iPad" and "tablet industry" remain nearly synonymous.)
The Apple strategy of building both hardware and software is turning into a template for some of the company's major competitors. For instance, HP, which sells more computers running Windows than anyone else, plunked down $1.2 billion last April to buy Palm and its WebOS mobile operating system. At a press event last month, it laid out a vision in which everything from tablets to phones to printers to laptops would use WebOS. Similarly, BlackBerry maker RIM is using the QNX operating system, also acquired in April, as the basis of its about-to-ship PlayBook tablet and future BlackBerry models.
But it's not yet clear that the post-PC era won't take a turn in a direction that looks strikingly PC-like. For now, Apple's only archrival among makers of these sorts of gadgets is Google, which is putting its Android operating system on hundreds of smart phones and dozens of (mostly upcoming) tablets from hardwaremakers large and small. Its approach isn't much more than a modified version of the mantra that Gates and Allen began repeating early in their company's history: "A computer on every desk and in every home, all running Microsoft software."
Speaking of Microsoft, it's not particularly startling that it has had more trouble than some companies acclimating to the notion of a post-PC age. Its Windows Phone 7 operating system, which finally showed up last October, is promising, but it is also a profound underdog in the race against iPhones and Android handsets. And it looks like the earliest the company will have a version of Windows that's plausible competition for the iPad is late 2012, almost three years after Apple announced its tablet.
Of course, the fun part about covering this stuff is that it's too early to declare any company as a permanent winner or to completely write anybody off. In 2011 as in 1974 all we know for sure is that nobody knows anything for sure and that some amazing times are ahead.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist. His column for TIME.com, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday.