After years of decline, PC sales picked up in 2020. They should remain above their long-term trend this year.
What happens after that is less certain. Let’s tease out the likely pattern.
As the pandemic spread, companies sent employees home to work. Schools asked students to continue lessons online. Zoom became a household name as many of us attended video meetings or classes.
Two forces combined to boost PC sales.
First, many people could no longer get by sharing a laptop or desktop PC.
It’s fine sharing when you need a PC for a few hours a week. The rest of the time a phone or tablet, a workplace computer or a games console does the heavy lifting.
Sharing isn’t ideal when your employer or teacher expects you to be online for eight hours a day.
Working in a lockdown needs closer to one computer per person.
This simple change expanded the PC market beyond anything anticipated before lockdown.
A second force was that old laptops sitting in cupboards weren’t good enough for long-term working from home.
Many 2020 PC sales were upgrades.
Sales that year could have been higher but for shortages and supply chain challenges.
There’s likely to be a spillover this year.
Expect more upgrades as employees adjust to spending more time working from home. For years people didn’t care about the home PCs experience. Their desktops and laptops were secondary.
Overnight everyone neeed better video calling. They wanted brighter screens, faster computers, better sound, better everything. The PC experience mattered again.
When you realise this is how life will be from now on, this becomes more important.
And less mobility means less emphasis on phones. It’s no accident the 2020 trend for phone sales was towards less expensive, smaller models.
Squeezing out value
For close to a decade we hung on to PC hardware for longer. We skipped upgrades because they added little that improved everyday life.
That’s likely to change. We can expect shorter product lifecycles, more frequent upgrades.
Where possible families will edge closer to the one PC per person goal which allows everyone to work.
Another element in this will be company hardware purchases. This will drive the market. Firms that give employees better work from home computers will see higher productivity. They will have better engagement.
Those that skimp will suffer.
It would be fair to say falling PC sales went hand-in-hand with a slump in innovation. Digital brands diverted their best design and engineering brains to growing markets. Phones, tablets, cloud computing, AI and the like got their attention.
This may not change as much as when the PC boom was racing along. Yet, we can expect fresh ideas to better match the new role played by PCs.
Take the cameras on the front of laptops used for video calls. They are way behind the cameras used on even modest mobile phones. It means poor quality video images, at times coming from odd angles. Any PC brand who can sort that out will find a ready market.
PC sales may never soar again, but they may bump along at a higher level than if there had never been a pandemic. We may even see market excitement. Wouldn’t that be a fine thing?