How WFH Could Spur Always-Connected PC Adoption

As the fall semester begins with many k-12 and college students still learning from home, while many parents are still working from home, a technical issue looms for many households: slow broadband. Many home Internet connections are not up to the task of supporting multiple concurrent Zoom and Teams calls, along with the other broadband-taxing software and services a family utilizes when everyone is connecting from home. I believe this could drive interest in always-connected PCs. But this will only happen if all the requisite players—including PC vendors, carriers, and platform owners—take some necessary actions.

Slow Adoption of Connected PCs
I’ve written in the past about the value of always-connected PCs, and in the past much of the value I attributed to the category was predicated upon the user being highly mobile. Pre-COVID-19, I traveled a great deal, and the ability to stay connected in hotels, airports, taxis, Lyfts, client offices, and in the minutes leading up to the plane door closing drove immense productivity value for me personally. Add to this the security benefits of not dealing with sketchy, slow WiFi connections, plus the cost savings of not having to pay for WiFi, and for me, the connected PC became more than a luxury; it became a necessity.

Despite all of this, attach rates for LTE modems in traditional notebooks remains stubbornly low as a percentage of overall notebook shipments (it is notably higher in commercial versus consumer segments). Obviously, not everyone wants or needs an always-connected PC, but I do believe the volumes there could be much higher.

There are several reasons for this slow adoption, the most important being the most obvious: Cost. Both the cost of adding the modem to the notebook itself, plus the ongoing cost of service. Other inhibitors include hardware vendors who have been unwilling to deal with the challenges of offering modems across more of their product lines, carriers who have been disinclined to put in the work to drive better onboarding experiences, and platform owners that have been slow to evolve the always-connected experience for users.

As we barrel toward 2021, I am convinced we’ll see the industry begin to deal with these inhibitors, which could lead to a sizeable increase in connected PC shipments in the coming years.

IT Interest Plus 5G Rollout
When companies first started closing offices, the first and immediate need for many was simply acquiring notebook PCs to make sure all employees could continue to work and be productive from home. Now, as organizations move from triage to thinking about the long-term ramifications of some larger percentage of their workforce working from home some or all the time, IT is exploring the best ways to support these workers. One way many companies have helped support their employees is by offering to cover some or all their broadband costs, typically through expense reimbursement.

This is a wildly inefficient and costly way to provide connectivity for employees. Looking ahead, I expect many organizations will take a closer look at the cost of a connected PC, and the ongoing cost of providing connectivity to that PC through corporate bulk purchases and will find much to like. When you add on top of this the potential collaboration and productivity benefits of disconnecting from the overtaxed home broadband connection, the option becomes even more attractive.

In a recent IDC survey of U.S. IT decision-makers, we asked about interest in connected PCs before COVID and now, and the spike in interest was dramatic. And several of the major OEMs I’ve talked to say they also see a spike in interest from IT buyers. Note that I said there was a spike in interest. So far, there hasn’t been a comparable spike in orders. Yet.

Another big potential driver in the coming year is the rollout of 5G networks. There are two factors at play here: that 5G will eventually bring faster, lower latency performance, and the fact that the carriers have spent a fortune building out these networks, and they need paying customers to utilize them. I think these two things could drive more interest from both consumer and commercial notebook buyers.

I’ve been using Lenovo’s new Flex 5G, which is based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx processor, with good results. During Intel’s big 11th-gen processor event this week, we saw a glimpse of Samsung’s upcoming Samsung Galaxy Book Flex 5G. Intel has said more products from vendors such as HP and Dell will ship in early 2021 using a combined Intel and MediaTek 5G solution.

What I’d like to happen over the next 12-18 months is for more hardware vendors to begin the challenging process of revamping more existing notebook designs to accommodate 5G modems. That is no small task, I know, but it is one of the critical things that need to happen if adoption is to grow. Concurrently, we need the carriers to work with the vendors and the platform owners (Microsoft, Google, and Apple) to find better, more frictionless ways to let users and companies sign up for, connect to, and utilize fast and affordable connections. Finally, we need the platform owners themselves to evolve their products to better leverage the capabilities that such a connection can bring.
The next few years are going to be very interesting in terms of the technologies that help drive both work and school from home. Even as we look forward to things eventually returning to some sense of normal, many things will have changed for good. One thing will not have changed: The need for a good Internet connection to get work done. I’m hopeful we’ll see some significant strides in making the always-connected PC more common in the future.

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Tom Mainelli

Tom Mainelli has covered the technology industry since 1995. He manages IDC's Devices and Displays group, which covers a broad range of hardware categories including PCs, tablets, smartphones, thin clients, displays, and wearables. He works closely with tech companies, industry contacts, and other analysts to provide in-depth insight and analysis on the always-evolving market of endpoint devices and their related services. In addition to overseeing the collection of historical shipment data and the forecasting of shipment trends in cooperation with IDC's Tracker organization, he also heads up numerous primary research initiatives at IDC. Chief among them is the fielding and analysis of IDC's influential, multi-country Consumer and Commercial PC, Tablet, and Smartphone Buyer Surveys. Mainelli is also driving new research at IDC around the technologies of augmented and virtual reality.

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