3 pandemic-related trends for 2021

When we shifted rapidly from working in offices to working from home early this year, we weren’t at all ready. I’ve heard stories of employees who stripped their offices of everything but their phones because they lacked office furniture at home; workers who got thousands of dollars to buy home office equipment; and employees who got nothing other than a “good luck.”

But tech companies have been watching, and in 2021 we will see several new trends affecting laptops and the arrival of some exciting product bundles. I want to talk about the three most interesting to me this week.

Branded office bundles

One problem with the rush to work and study from home is that support organizations have been hammered by problems resulting from that lack of consistency. To address this problem, vendors are putting together bundles that — at a minimum — include a router (where many support problems  originate) to meet company standards regarding security, management, and reliability. Other than that, it isn’t yet clear what the bundles might contain and whether they will be packaged together (more likely from an online vendor than in a store) or connected by brand, so employees can build their bundle from approved parts. (The latter would more likely be in-store.)

Regardless of approach, by mid-2021 I expect there will be a way for employees to more easily pick products that comply with company policy and for companies to fund those programs and ensure they help mitigate the support problems now plaguing them. 

WAN-connected laptops

This is something likely to be a parallel effort to the WFH hardware bundle. People are working at home with spouses who are also working or streaming, and kids that are gaming, streaming, or studying. As a result, their internet bandwidth isn’t adequate, causing videoconferencing to degrade or fail. The industry solution: more common WAN integration in laptops to guarantee more reliable connections  and better videoconferencing meetings.

While backhaul issues are being reported regarding 5G deployments in the U.S., they’re expected to be mitigated by mid-year. A dedicated WAN link that is secure and more reliable seems to be driving this trend. If you’re planning to buy laptops in the year ahead, you may want to consider this option seriously — and update your RFPs. 

Improved cameras and sound

Another problem: laptops weren’t set up to be a primary way to communicate. They have microphones, cameras, and speakers, of course, but the first two weren’t used that often and the speakers were routinely tuned for entertainment more than work. Look for this trend to change in 2021. I’m expecting cameras that better handle employees who move while talking, automatically adjust their appearance so it looks as if they’re focused on the camera and technology that creates a more attractive image. 

On sound, watch for considerable improvements in noise cancellation with microphones, so you don’t hear kids or pets in the background. You’ll still see a focus on entertainment, so folks can still use laptops for movies and music, but other enhancements should improve sound quality. These kinds of changes are also likely to be seen in Bluetooth accessories like earbuds, which often need better sound quality and active noise cancellation.

One other change that will have a bearing next year is an initiative being driven across the PC ecosystem called Pluton.  This was created to address a major TPM (Trusted Platform Module) security problem and will likely result in an accelerated refresh cycle because the problem is particularly pronounced for devices that aren’t physically secured. 

Wrapping up: Hope for ’21

Provisioning home offices and finding hardware that has been enhanced for remote work will be a lot easier next year. As the industry embraces the New Normal, the products and bundles they produce are evolving, too. From physical and virtual bundles for home offices that meet corporate needs to new laptops with 5G WAN, employees will be able to better connect safely from home. 

There will continue to be a focus on videoconferencing from remote locations, as many companies conclude that the only reason to go into the office is for meetings. (Many analysts, myself included, think this is a bit tone-deaf given the pandemic, but it is a trend.)

The good news is that solutions are on the way; the bad news is that they won’t start arriving until sometime in the first half of 2021.