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Booming PC sales reflect long-term bets on remote work and learning

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Having watched the PC market slowly disintegrate in recent years, the latest market research showing a massive surge in sales is astounding. It is also a testament to the profound impact the pandemic has had on the way people live and work — trends that the numbers indicate are likely to endure well beyond the immediate health crisis.

According to the latest report from Canalys, shipments of desktops, notebooks, and workstations increased by 25% in the fourth quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

Within those numbers were two additional data points that reflect the dramatic impact on buying habits. Sales of notebooks and mobile workstations grew to 235.1 million units, up 44% from 2019. At the same time, desktop sales fell 20% to 61.9 million units, a decade-long trend that seems to be putting these workstations on a trajectory to becoming niche products.

Clearly, companies are favoring flexibility over fixed workstations, at the very least hedging their bets as they try to think about the future of their workforces.

This was the third straight quarter of growth, and it might have been 4 except vendors were caught short in Q1 when widespread lockdowns began and buying habits changed and accelerated. The industry seems to have worked through this supply constraint, and as result, overall sales for the year were up 11%.

According to the Canalys report, 2020 marked the industry’s highest rate of growth in 10 years, and its largest volumes since 2014.

The trends driving this have been widely discussed over the past 10 months. But the sheer size of the leap in the last three months of 2020 indicates that both enterprises and consumers are expecting the move to remote working and distance learning to become permanent fixtures and are investing accordingly.

“The growth is coming from both ends, enterprise and consumer,” said Canalys’ lead PC researcher Rushabh Doshi. “Commercial shipments are driven by the need to ensure business continuity (work from home), and consumer purchases are primarily being driven by the need to support remote learning.”

Certainly from an enterprise perspective, 2020 has been a revelation in many ways.

Companies that have long insisted that employees must gather in offices every day discovered that productivity continued to be strong in 2020 even as they scrambled to new workflows built around remote work. That led to a tantalizing realization that big money could be saved by shaving down those real estate costs.

Buying laptops for their employees is nothing compared to abandoning a major lease. There are still many issues to work through as this trend becomes more permanent rather than a temporary response. And vendors are now wondering how far this trend can continue as the vaccines arrive.

But certainly, the sales of 2020 are going to put to rest any talk about the death of PCs.

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