How remote working has forced us to look beyond the traditional PC, to Raspberry Pis, Linux laptops, Chromebooks and more

Businesses and consumers are finding new and innovative ways to work and play online, showing how wide the computing device landscape has become.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

In an attempt to reduce the spread of coronavirus, many millions of people are now working from home rather than commuting to offices.

That has put huge pressure on technology teams to make working from home possible, and has also forced many of us to rethink the tools that we use.

Foremost among those tools is the PC. Sales have been in steady decline, with occasional upticks, for some years now, and the first three months of this year continued that trend -- but for different reasons.

SEE: Working from home: Success tips for telecommuters (free PDF)

Much of that first-quarter decline was down to limited supply, with China's PC factories closing early in the year due to the coronavirus. The impact of that shortage was amplified because once the coronavirus spread around the world, there was a sudden increase in demand for PCs as companies and consumers tried to get hold of laptops for work, education or entertainment at home.

"Once coronavirus-related lockdowns expanded to other regions, there were new, sudden pockets of PC demand for remote workers and online classrooms that PC manufacturers could not keep up with," noted analyst firm Gartner.

A minor but interesting consequence seems to be an increased interest in PC alternatives -- whether because of lack of supply or simply because businesses and consumers have had to respond to changing circumstances with limited budgets.

For example, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has noted that sales have rocketed during the coronavirus crisis, which it puts down to people buying the tiny computers to end battles over the single home PC during lockdown. The lastest Raspberry Pi might be diminutive, but it's powerful enough to take on the role of budget computer if need be. Chromebooks, which are slightly easier to work with if you don't have the technical skills to play with a Pi, have also been selling well.

And it's not only harassed parents looking for extra PCs that have been getting creative. Here at ZDNet we've also written about how councils have been digging old laptops out of storage, putting Linux on them or otherwise lightening the operating system load, and sending them out to allow staff to work from home.

An old or lower-spec device is good enough for many employees, especially if your teams only need to access cloud-based tools and/or virtual desktop services. It's been pointed out that without the option of using a wide range of cloud-computing services businesses would be in even more trouble. The same could be say about ageing hardware that has been pressed back into service.

"Businesses are looking for the use of personally owned devices (BYOD). Big part of the reason is the delay on PC supply. We believe that the supply chain disruption has been improved, but it was a big problem in the past two months that businesses could not get the enough PC supply. BYOD is alternative solution for many businesses," Mikako Kitagawa, research director at Gartner, told ZDNet.

None of this means the PC is obsolete -- it's still the business workhorse, and it's what I'm typing on right now, just that it's not the only option. And it's far too early to tell how this will play out in future. What's very likely is that many of those staff who are now working from home will be there for some time to come; and even after the crisis has passed, remote working will be a bigger part of our lives than ever before.

Many organisations -- budgets permitting, in what are likely to be tough times ahead -- will be looking to re-equip those home workers with better hardware. But some may look at the slimmed-down devices they are using and decide that the days of the one-size-fits-all computing device have now passed.

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

The make-do-and-mend attitude may continue -- Gartner certainly expects further declines in PCs sales as companies focus on saving money. Meanwhile, rival analyst firm IDC argues that companies that have kept their staff in offices will have to invest more in remote infrastructure, and consumers will long to upgrade their PCs -- both developments that will create "a steady, long-range tailwind for PC and monitor markets."

But it's also worth remembering that, when it comes to the choice of computing devices, a few years back it was a PC or nothing.  Now we have a wide range of devices, from single-board computers to tablets that can fill in where the fully fledged PC isn't needed, or available. We should celebrate the ingenuity of those people who are finding new ways of using technology to work, learn or just have fun.

Have you changed the way you use technology for work in the current crisis? Let us know in the comments section below.


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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