Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What the heck is a PC?

So the other day a friend of mine comes over to discuss some business strategy. After chatting for a bit, he asks me if he could use one of my computers to check his E-Mail. Happily obliging, I log into one of my x86-64 machines running Linux/KDE, open up Firefox for him, and tell him to go check.

So my friend sits down, grabs for the mouse and keyboard, and starts looking at the screen with a weird expression on his face. After a couple of seconds, he clicks on the address bar, looks around a bit more, then he motions to me that he could use some help.

I asked him if he used a particular web based e-mail service, he answered in the affirmative that he uses G-Mail. So I typed in the address to G-Mail for him, which brought up the login page asking for his username and password.

He again looks at the screen, types in his username, then pauses again. He turns to me and tells me he feels really uncomfortable using this system, do I have a PC available that he can use?

This question made me completely flabbergasted. My friend is technically oriented, he's been using computers for a decade, he knows various operating systems exist, he knows various web browsers exist. He uses Firefox both at home and work. He even does some VBA scripting in his Excel spreadsheets. What in the world is scaring him about Firefox in Linux/KDE?

As the story continues, I turn to my friend and tell him this is a PC. He looks back at the screen, looks a bit startled, then seems to think for a few moments. Finally he turns to me and says, you know, Windows? So I reboot the machine into Windows XP (all my computers are minimally dual boot), and open up Firefox for him. He sits down happily and checks his E-Mail.

This experience left me thinking though. What the heck is a PC? It seems some people today have got it in their skulls that PC is a connotation for Windows. PC-DOS, PC-BSD, and other OSs must appear oxymoronish to these people if they ever saw them.

Thinking about it, I always for years viewed a PC as something IBM put together, most importantly containing an x86 processor. The basic machine changed over the years, but it was always x86. But then Apple released computers on x86 chips too recently, and they vehemently deny that they use PC hardware. Their basic difference being they don't use any classic PC BIOS.

Should we now take the term PC to mean x86+BIOS? Thinking more about it, a PC should probably be defined as a computer capable of running MS/PC DOS. Maybe even Apple decided to use their whole EFI setup just so they can classify their computers as not PCs. And thanks to dumb marketing, people are now thinking PC means running Windows.

So, do you know anyone who is scared of the same browser on a different OS? What do you think of when you hear "PC"? Has the PC definition changed? Should it change?


Dan said...

I've actually had similar experiences, people couldn't figure out how to use the browser on one of my KDE machines because it's oh-so difficult. I think people don't realize that the program is a separate entity from the desktop environment/OS and get flustered by the unfamiliar panel layout. I have a custom theme I made on my computer to mimic the LCARS computers from star trek, and even people who use default KDE regularly have had trouble with it. I never understand why they don't get that the program works the same way no matter where your panels are or how they look.

As for the whole "PC" thing, I'd actually call it INTELLIGENT marketing on the part of Microsoft that people think that "PC" means "Windows". In actual fact, taken literally, "PC", which stands for "Personal Computer", would mean any privately-owned data-processing device, regardless of architecture or operating system. wikipedia agrees with me, defining a personal computer as "any general-purpose computer whose size, capabilities, and original sales price make it useful for individuals, and which is intended to be operated directly by an end user, with no intervening computer operator". It also mentions that "the most common operating systems for personal computers are Microsoft Windows, Mac OS and Linux, while the most common microprocessors are x86-compatible CPUs, ARM architecture CPUs and PowerPC CPUs".

I hope you're raising the coderlings to recognize the difference between what-people-call-things and what-things-actually-mean, because there seems to be no hope left for this generation, but maybe, just maybe, if we raise them right, our children won't grow up to be total morons.

Lucian said...

I really don't get it. It isn't only the exact same browser, but also the exact same web application.

Non-technical people weren't bothered by my Safari or Camino, they just want a url+search bar to get started.

Zero-Hero said...

Funnily enough, I've seen an advertisement on TV recently (I live in the UK) depecting a young boy using Windows Vista to take some files off a digital camera. It clearly equates the "PC" as a machine that runs Windows, even though Windows is not the "PC", it is the "Operating System".

Kumool said...

why didnt you ran it on fullscreen? F11 and there you go, nothing to be confused about

insane coder said...

Perhaps I should have tried running it full screen for him.

But then he probably would've felt uncomfortable about running a browser full screen which he has never done before. Or wonder why the scroll widgets on the side look different.

David Douthitt said...

I don't call those things "PCs" any more - the term PC is an IBM trademark (or perhaps was - or should have been). The IBM PC was a computer: so that's what I call these things: computers.

A PC is an IBM product.

On the main topic: what is it about the browser, anyway? Firefox is Firefox - no matter what operating system or desktop environment it is using.

Taskboy3000 said...

Ah. The Personal Computer. Since Apple and Sun both issue hardware with x86 CPUs, I don't think the PC can be defined by processor architecture anymore. Do you consider the X-Box a PC? Architecturally, it sure looks like one.

I thought perhaps BIOS was the defining bit of legacy for PCs, but I'm not even sure that's true.

For most people, PC == Windows. Heck, look at Apple's famous Ads with Hodgman. That does a much as anything to bind "PC" and "Windows" together in the public's mind.

Linux isn't even on the radar. A Linux desktop machine is more likely to be referred to as a "workstation" than a "PC".

We, in the tech space, live in an ontologically confused world.

Rodrigo Ortiz said...

In a way, it may be possibly SMART marketing. I mean, anyone who lacks the basic knowledge in this information thinks Windows = PCs. Microsoft must be happy.

Kumool said...

This is from "Upgrading and repairing Pc's 17th edition", i dunno if the argument still aplies today and i havent really checked at apple's licensing or what kind of bios it uses

"This means that the only way to get DOS on an IBM compatible was to license it. This is where Microsoft came in. Because IBM (who hired Microsoft to write DOS in the first place) did not ensure that Microsoft signed an exclusive license agreement, Microsoft was free to sell the same DOS it designed for IBM to anybody else who wanted it. With a licensed copy of MS-DOS, the last piece was in place and the floodgates were open for IBM-compatible systems to be produced whether IBM liked it or not.

In retrospect, this is exactly why there are no clones or compatibles of the Apple Macintosh system. It is not that Mac systems can't be duplicated; in fact, Mac hardware is fairly simple and easy to produce using off-the-shelf parts. The real problem is that Apple owns the Mac OS as well as the BIOS, and because Apple has seen fit not to license them, no other company can sell an Apple-compatible system. Also, note that the Mac BIOS and OS are very tightly integrated; the Mac BIOS is very large and complex, and it is essentially a part of the OS, unlike the much simpler and more easily duplicated BIOS found on PCs. The greater complexity and integration has allowed both the Mac BIOS and OS to escape any clean-room duplication efforts. This means that without Apple's blessing (in the form of licensing), no Mac clones are likely ever to exist."

The history of gum
And as it stood it sticked

argv said...

A PC is a machine that, depending on context, either can or actually does run a reasonably modern version of Microsoft Windows.

The reason is simple: Microsoft, by virtue of their operating system monopoly, controls what "PC" means. A machine with EFI instead of a PC BIOS is a PC if and only if Windows can boot on it.

Of course, the distinction got a lot blurrier when Apple started making Macs fitting this definition…

L3thal said...

the word is also spread among gamers and game environmets , when you see a game lable , you will see in the requirements that it needs a "PC" which referes to a computer running Windows , also sometimes you ca see the Windows Logo so clearly, but i agree, icall it computers, its also been popular among linux users that "Box" referes to the linux compters so its more like Box vs PC