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Originally published Sunday, August 14, 2011 at 10:01 PM

The PC isn't dying; it's coming to life

People have been predicting the "death of the PC" for years, to little effect. But in the PC world, market forces have never quite collided as they are now.

The Washington Post

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People have been predicting the "death of the PC" for years, to little effect. But in the PC world, market forces have never quite collided as they are now.

The rise of the living Web — a place populated with your personal content — has given birth to the "cloud." The iPhone and natural human interfaces have dramatically changed the way we physically interact with our machines, peeling away layers of abstraction.

Those two forces are now converging to make computing more human by removing the confusing language of machines.

We're about to cross over a threshold where the devices we use really do become far less like a computer — both in how they function and where their bits are stored — and more personal, too.

At Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference this year, Steve Jobs told an audience of eager programmers that his team had been working for 10 years to "get rid of the file system [on computers] so the user didn't have to worry about it." A month earlier, Google representatives took the stage at their annual developer conference and introduced a new type of laptop that gets rid of not only the file system, but nearly the entire computer, offering users nothing more than a Web browser with which to navigate their digital life.

Even Microsoft recently introduced its latest version of Windows (No. 8 for those keeping count) coupled with a touch-friendly, simple new way to navigate your computer.

Last month, Apple introduced the latest version of its operating system for Macs to the public — OS X Lion. The software is notable not just for what it adds to the user experience, but what it hides or removes completely.

Borrowing heavily from the logic of the iPad and iPhone, Lion allows and encourages applications to run in a "full screen" mode that removes familiar pieces of the operating system like the menu bar. It also demands that the user focus on one application at a time. You're either in it, or you're not.

Why is this significant? Largely because interface designers have spent the past quarter century trying to figure out how to better manage windows — literally, how to unclutter the windows in which your information is kept. As anyone who's ever struggled to carry on an instant message session while browsing the Web, checking email and keeping an eye on Twitter can tell you, that actually isn't so easy.

Elsewhere in Lion, multi-finger gestures replicate the kinds of swipes and flicks we're becoming accustomed to on the screens of mobile devices, an obvious foreshadowing of a generation of PCs that do away with the keyboard and trackpad altogether.

And Apple has gotten rid of that file system; your documents are now saved in invisible "versions" that can be recalled from any point in your editing process.

But it's not just behavior on the screen that's being altered; it's also about the behavior behind and beyond what you can see. Google, a company known best for search and its mobile operating system Android, has just introduced an operating system of its own dubbed Chrome OS. The devices that run Chrome OS (Chromebooks) are literally nothing more than a notebook running that browser. But Chrome OS goes much deeper than just an interface, as the system demands that nearly all of your data are stored in the cloud.

Something very big is happening in computing right now. We're moving away from closed, disconnected, windowed environments toward something dramatically different. What will happen over the next few years in user-interface design and decentralized cloud systems will make the previous 20 years seem tame. We've crossed over from a long, slow evolution to an explosive revolution in what a computer is and how you use it — and there's no looking back.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor-in-chief of The Verge, a technology news website debuting this fall, and the former editor-in-chief of Engadget.

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