Post-COVID surveys (and evolving tech needs) suggest a coming change in PC/tablet design

The coronavirus pandemic has forced companies to change how employees do their jobs. It's also going to change the hardware they use.

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Ian Noble; Modified by IDG Comm. (CC0)

I've had a chance to review an as-yet unpublished post-COVID-19 survey that suggests there's been a significant change in how we use our devices. Streaming and video conferencing apps have seen a massive increase, and tablet use is up sharply as people move around their homes while remaining both connected to their work and connected, via conferencing, to their co-workers. (While this didn’t show up in the survey, I notice that on significant calls I’m part of, people are increasingly trying to pick interesting places to conference from outside of their home or home office.)

It's still early for significant changes to the hardware we are using to show up – typically, it takes a year for behavior to change and then another six months to a year to see that reflected in the design and manufacturing process. However, I think we can make some determinations about where the emphasis is likely to change for products in 2022.  

5G

While we've yet to see broad adoption of 5G in tablet and PC designs, the trend to do more video conferencing from unusual places suggests this connectivity option will advance over time. The current limitation: 5G availability and a lack of related advocacy. It is hard to build advocacy if a technology isn’t yet widely deployed. But the survey did identify the need, and discussions with OEMs suggest that 2021 should offer a sharp increase in tablets that come with 5G – either as an option or part of the design. Early adopters will likely favor products that already have this capability, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab. 

I think it likely we'll see an increasing blurring of the lines between tablets and large smartphones because their core capabilities will continue to converge around the shared need to be always connected.

Tablets vs. PCs

I don't see a return to the "PC is dead and will be replaced by the iPad" stuff we heard at the beginning of the last decade. But I do think it is now more likely, as I noted above, that we’ll see a blurring between tablets and smartphones. This blurring suggests that smartphones will become redundant if tablets can successfully find a way to elegantly perform as smartphone replacements for voice communications, maybe with a more attractive and useful update to earbuds.Earbuds that can take a temperature or improve hearing might bring users back to them, but this wasn’t surveyed.

Better placement of video conferencing cameras

The rise of video conferencing has resulted in an increased number of complaints about camera placement. These complaints, in turn, have partially resulted in increased interest in transparent displays and displays where the camera can be successfully placed in the middle. Costs for both will likely remain prohibitive for at least 12 months. Still, there is a lot of research and development focused on this problem, increasing the likelihood of initial success in the next year and a half. 

If successful, this design change could impact both tablets and PCs, with the latter arriving first since the price sensitivity with high-end PCs is lower than with cheaper high-end tablets. In short, because PCs can more easily absorb this extra cost at the high end, this is where the technology will most likely emerge. 

Battery life, battery technology

Interest in extended battery life appears diminished, mainly due to the fact people are still mostly working at home where outlets are prevalent. Even tablet battery life doesn’t appear to generate the interest it once did. Having said that, the electric car market is driving some interesting Lithium-Ion advances and new battery technologies like Lithium-Sulfur and solid-state. As a result, toward the end of the forecast period, we are likely to see several products using one of these advanced battery technologies. The result: massively improved battery life will change this market dynamic, which could be very attractive if vaccines end the pandemic and a large number of people again start traveling for business. 

Wrapping up: 2022

With the changes in where we work and a continued focus on still-unmet needs, R&D efforts are likely to result in significant design and product mix changes by 2022. This shift should favor high-speed wireless, an increase in connected-tablet sales, a faster merging of tablet and smartphone form factors, and the increasing potential for a laptop redesign.

There's no indication yet for a move to more advanced options like head-mounted displays. But that is likely, because we don’t have a product that yet matches acceptable performance at an attractive price. A great deal of work is being done in this area, but until we have one decent success, we don’t have a trend – yet. 

Other disruptive technologies such as actual wireless charging, modifications to facial recognition for mask wearers, and significant improvements to recycling are all coming, too. Still, there isn’t a good baseline yet for a time prediction. By mid-decade, though, what we are using then may look and work very differently than what we are using now. And the Pandemic will have a significant impact on that change. 

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