PC sales hit record thanks to Covid-driven work-from-home boom

No futurist picked it, but in 2021, personal computers are flying off shelves in record numbers.

Worldwide PC shipments grew a stunning 55 per cent in the first quarter of this year, vs the first quarter of 2020.

According to market tracker IDC’s preliminary numbers, some 83.98 million personal computers were sold in the three months to March 31, versus 54.12m for the year-ago period.

In New Zealand, IDC is picking first-quarter growth will be a far more muted 3.3 per cent – which the market tracker says is in part down to a positive: the success of our Covid response means the PC-upgrade pressures of remote working, online learning and days of playing Fortnite are already consigned to history for many Kiwis, and partly down to a negative: “Businesses being cautious with spending.”

Both the first quarter of 2020 (factory closures) and the first quarter of 2021 (component shortages and global shipping logjams) were subject to virus pressures. But while the first three months of last year were flat with 2019, the first quarter of this year has broken records, with the strongest growth ever measured.

And locally, IDC’s final numbers for 2020 show the New Zealand PC market had its strongest ever year as unit shipments grew 12.3 per cent to 826,000 units.

The reason for the PC’s renaissance was, of course, pandemic lockdowns and the work-from-home boom. But the comeback was not shared equally. IDC says NZ laptop sales increased 21 per cent last year, to around 660,000, while desktops continued their long-term decline, falling 15 per cent to around 166,000.

Desktops were cheaper and more plentiful, amid intermittent parts shortages and shipping delays. But most did not have that all-important tool for the Zoom-age: a web cam. And at some points during 2020, you couldn’t buy a standalone webcam for love or money.

Before the 2020 turnaround, IDC had tracked an annual decline in PC sales every year since 2011.

Personal computers became commoditised around that point as one version of Windows or Office blurred into the next, and many preferred to put their budget into upgrading their internet plan, or keeping up with the latest smartphone.

But Covid-19 turned the tables. Hitherto ever-ascending smartphone sales suddenly tanked.For example, in the three months to September 2020, total NZ smartphone sales were 155,000 handsets, crashing by almost half from Q3 2019’s 308,000. Top smartphone makers Apple and Samsung were able to stockpile chips (at the expense of the slower-moving car-makers), avoiding delays – but demand cooled regardless as many punters put that iPhone or Android upgrade on hold to help fund a new laptop amid the work-from-home boom.

Some things didn’t change. Worldwide, China’s Lenovo (which bought IBM’s PC businessback in 2005, remains the number one PC brand worldwide, and HP remained number two.

Dell held on to third place, but fourth-placed Apple gained ground (overall it was a record year for Apple, as smartphones struggled at times during the pandemic, but its Macs and iPads hit new sales highs).

The PC makers should enjoy the golden weather while it lasts.

For 2021 as a whole, IDC is picking the local PC market will fall 5.5 per cent as we put the pandemic behind us and return to our fascination with phones.

Last week, IDC rival Gartner said total IT spending in New Zealand dipped 1.6 per cent to $12.5 billion in 2020 as every category of tech spending declined.

From spending so far this year and its forecast, the research firm is projecting a 2.7 per cent increase in NZ IT spending to $12.8b this year – which would represent an increase over pre-pandemic levels (total NZ IT spending in 2019 was $12.7b).

Enterprise software, IT services and data centre systems are pegged to be the biggest areas of growth. All are tied to the shift from in-house IT systems to the cloud – a long-term trend that both IDC and Gartner see accelerated by the Covid-19-inspired shift to hybrid working.

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