PC Technologies and Product Categories to Watch in 2021

on December 11, 2020

As the year winds down, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big product announcements and technology shifts we’ve seen inside this tumultuous year. While we’re all hoping 2021 will at some point bring our lives back toward something more like normal, the impact of COVID on the technology markets will carry on throughout the year. What follows is not so much a list of predictions but a list of PC-focused topics worth continuing to watch closely in the new year.

Sustained PC Growth
As we entered 2020, the conventional wisdom pointed to a flat to modestly down year for traditional PCs, which had just seen the final commercial laggards make the move from Windows 7/8 to Windows 10. Early in the year, as China faced the first pandemic-forced shutdowns that would impact the supply of PCs (for the world) and demand for the products inside the country, it looked as if the pandemic might have a broadly negative impact on the PC Market. We know now that wasn’t the case, and as consumers, businesses, and schools around the world moved to live, work, and learn from home, demand for especially notebook PCs skyrocketed. Throughout the year and into December, we’ve seen demand far outstrip supply, and as we head into 2021, a great deal of that demand is still waiting to be filled.

Expect the first half of 2021 to drive very good PC volumes. At present, the second half is less clear, but assuming the supply chain can finally catch up with existing demand, we are likely to see volumes drop off some by then. The real question: Once we’ve widely distributed vaccines, and the world returns to whatever the next normal looks like, will the PC retain its newly reestablished important role? Or will it slide into the background again as people shift back toward greater mobility, putting down their notebooks and picking up their smartphones again? We’ll be watching closely to determine if 20/21 sets a new, lasting TAM for PCs or if the market quickly reverts to its pre-2020 rhythms and market totals.

Expanded Silicon Diversity
One genie that’s not going back into the bottle is the industry-wide shift toward great silicon diversity in PCs. For a very long time, Intel ruled the PC space, with AMD playing the foil to its total market dominance. After several years of process challenges, missed deadlines, and product shortages, Intel finds itself in a dramatic battle with a newly resurgent AMD that not only has highly competitive products but the institutional patience to grow its share at a deliberate, sustainable pace. Of course, in the past, Intel has often done its best work when under challenge. With its first 11th Gen Core products shipping now to consumers, a new Evo platform story to tell, and the Vpro-branded commercial products set to hit in 2021, Intel is ready for battle.

Beyond X86, we’ve got smartphone silicon behemoth Qualcomm continuing to iterate on its PC-focused Snapdragon chips, too. While it has yet to have a breakout hit in the space, product wins with vendors including Microsoft, Samsung, Lenovo, and others suggest there is market viability if it keeps iterating.

Finally, this quarter Apple began shipping its first Apple Silicon-based products in new Macbook Airs, Macbook Pros, and Mac Minis. Many were disappointed Apple didn’t target a lower price point with these new products. Still, I expect they will do just that at some point in the future, as the company shifts toward a model comparable to their iPhone lineup that sees the current lineup shift downward in price but stay in the market, as the next generation of products launch. In the meantime, Apple seems to be driving substantial performance gains from its new chips, although there will be heated discussions about the veracity of those claims and the benchmarks that drive them well into the new year. All told, 2021 should see some fascinating movements in silicon.

5G PC Attach Rate
Another silicon-based area to closely monitor in the new year is the growth in cellular-connected PCs. This has long been a favorite topic of mine, as in the “before days,” I traveled extensively and had little use for a PC without an LTE connection. While few of us are traveling at present, an unexpected side benefit of an always-connected PC has been the ability to use the LTE (or in some cases now, 5G) modem instead of connecting to an overcapacity home broadband network. While your partner, children, relatives, and others fight over limited throughput on the router for Zoom calls, Youtube streams, and the like, a user with a connected PC can collaborate with relative ease.

I don’t expect a radical shift toward LTE/5G enabled PCs for employees working at home. Still, I expect many companies to look at this option as they continue to figure out where their workforce will sit in the future and how they will pay for connectivity. As more organizations shift toward smaller office setting designed to facilitate meetings versus housing the entire staff every day, connected PCs make even more sense from an infrastructure built-out perspective. One thing is clear: The PC vendors need to build better relationships with the powerhouse carriers in all regions to make these types of technology shifts possible.

Accessories Bonanza
PCs have seen the most headlines, but accessories are a category that has also enjoyed a banner year in 2020. With so many people outfitting home offices, or kitchen tables, with all the pieces necessary to drive productivity, we’ve seen huge growth in monitors, webcams, microphones, keyboards, mice, and headsets. For a time, midyear, it was literally impossible to buy a brand-name webcam anywhere.

I expect these categories to continue to see substantial volumes through much of 2020 as consumers, companies, and schools continue to adapt to what will likely be a mix of in-person and from-home activities throughout this year. Hastily purchased accessories will get replaced by better quality ones. And in many situations, we may see people looking to procure one set of accessories for use at home and another for us at work. Products that help users efficiently shift between smartphone and PC, PC and tablet, and tablet and smartphone will be in demand. Expect growth in the ear-worn wearables category to continue to grow by leaps and bounds.

Here Comes DaaS
Finally, to close out, I return to Device as a Service (DaaS), one of my favorite topics. All signs point to the pandemic as a driving force in many company’s broader digital transformation efforts, of which DaaS can be a crucial part. For many, shifting from a traditional model of procuring, deploying, and managing devices themselves to one where they pay an OEM or MSP to do this work offers clear advantages in terms of efficiency and workload. Based on my conversations with players in this space, COVID has accelerated many companies’ interest in DaaS, especially as they look toward the future of their distributed workforce and how they equip them to drive productivity. Expect to hear a great deal more about DaaS in 2021 as companies of all sizes take a closer look at the benefits it offers.
This has been a very challenging year, and like most people, I’m eager to close out 2020 with an eye toward a challenging but hopeful 2021. Many thanks to all who read me here at Techpinions. Happy Holidays and I look forward to seeing you all in 2021.