The personal computer is dead

For decades people bought general-purpose computers—PCs (Personal Computers), including those that say Mac. Those computers came with operating systems that took care of the basics. Anyone could write and run software for an operating system, and up popped an endless assortment of spreadsheets, word processors, instant messengers, Web browsers, e-mail, and games. That software ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous to the dangerous—and there was no referee except the user’s good taste and sense, with a little help from nearby nerds or antivirus software.

A flowering of innovation and communication was ignited by the rise of the PC and the Web and their generative characteristics. Software was installed one machine at a time, a relationship among myriad software makers and users.

Choosing an OS (Operating System) used to mean taking a bit of a plunge: since software was anchored to it, a choice of, say, Windows over Mac meant a long-term choice between different available software collections. Even if a software developer offered versions of its wares for each OS, switching from one OS to another typically meant having to buy that software all over again. That was one reason we ended up with a single dominant OS for over two decades. People had Windows, which made software developers want to write for Windows, which made more people want to buy Windows, which made it even more appealing to software developers, and so on.

The PC is dead. Rising numbers of mobile, lightweight, cloud-centric devices don’t merely represent a change in form factor (the size and shape of a device). Rather, we’re seeing an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers on the one hand, to operating system vendors on the other—and even those who keep their PCs are being swept along.

Where once we had a relatively decentralized web of relationships between computer users, webmasters, and software developers, now activity is clumping around a handful of portals: two or three OS makers that are in a position to manage all apps (and content within them) in an ongoing way, and a diminishing set of cloud hosting providers.

The transformation is one from product to service. The platforms we used to purchase every few years—like operating systems—have become ongoing relationships with vendors, both for end users and software developers.

This is especially troubling as governments have come to realize that this framework makes their own censorship vastly easier: what used to be a Sisyphean struggle to stanch the distribution of books, tracts, and then websites is becoming a few takedown notices to a handful of digital gatekeepers. Suddenly, objectionable content can be made to disappear by pressuring a technology company in the middle.

– Exerpted and adapted from The personal computer is dead by Jonathan Zitttrain, November 30, 2011.