Ina Fried

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Apple Enables Post-PC Era With iOS 5, but Are Users Ready?

Although every iPhone and iPad ships with a sync cable, Steve Jobs took a huge step on Monday to make that cord purely optional.

The Apple CEO drew significant applause as he announced several features that will allow the iPhone and iPad to end their dependence on a Mac or PC. When iOS 5 arrives this fall, iPhone and iPad owners will be able to get started directly from the device, as well as sync content wirelessly.

Indeed, by the time Jobs stood up later in the keynote and noted that Apple was demoting the Mac from the “digital hub” to just one of many devices talking to a hub in the cloud, the point had already been made. Of course, iCloud is a key piece of the vision, enabling all manner of documents to be created in one place–be it PC, Mac or iPhone–and then backed up and synced to a host of other devices.

Wedge Partners analyst Brian Blair said that, for all the talk around the post-PC era, it wasn’t really possible until Apple’s moves on Tuesday to allow the iPhone and iPad to operate without having to connect to a computer.

“It reminds me of the first Mac I saw without a floppy drive,” Blair said. “Or the reaction people had to the MacBook Air given the absence of a CD drive. The cord-cutting details of today’s event are a glimpse into the future.”

Apple was early with both trends, of course. But the floppy is most certainly dead and even the DVD drive is no longer ubiquitous on computers.

As for seeing a cloud-based future, Jobs is certainly not alone. Google is offering two of its own takes on the post-PC era. Android is clearly a bet on a lighter-weight operating system to take on iOS head-on. Meanwhile, the company’s Chrome OS is a different kind of bet on a world where the cloud is at the center. With Chromebooks, Google is pitching a world in which everything lives in the cloud, with very little if anything stored locally.

Amazon has also offered a cloud-centric approach to media with both its Kindle (and Kindle apps) as well as its Amazon MP3 music store.

One company that, not surprisingly, isn’t looking to enter the post-PC era just yet is Microsoft. Though clearly challenged by iOS and Android, Microsoft is attacking back with Windows 8–a version of the operating system that it hopes will be able to allow the PC to reach new directions. For its part, Microsoft is hoping that people will want a powerful machine with local storage, especially if that comes in a package nearly as portable as the cloud-dependent competition.

What remains to be seen is if Redmond can deliver on its “no compromises” promise, particularly when it comes to battery life and the user experience.

The other question is just how much people are really looking to move beyond the PC. There is no question that users are adopting alternative devices like smartphones and tablets. So far, at least, those devices are largely in addition to, rather than instead of, a computer.

But Apple’s move, Blair said, does more than just position the company for a distant future.

“It will also allow Apple to further penetrate international markets where populations don’t have high PC penetration rates,” Blair said. “Over the next decade, many users will purely access the network via an iPhone, that’s it…and that will be enough.”

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