The PC is suddenly cool again ... for now

Key Points
  • People appear to be spending more time with their PCs in the coronavirus era.
  • In the past few days Apple and Microsoft have given indications that use of their PC operating systems is higher than usual.
  • Facebook in recent weeks provided richer desktop capabilities for Instagram and Messenger.
Panos Panay, vice president of Microsoft Surface Computing, speaks about the new Microsoft Surface Laptop during a Microsoft launch event, May 2, 2017 in New York City.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

One apparent winner in the age of Covid-19 — along with grocery delivery services, streaming apps and video-calling services — is the good old personal computer, judging by usage gains in recent weeks.

The coronavirus has changed daily life for people all over the world, and that includes the use of technology. When people are mostly staying in, there's less need for travel-oriented services like mobile-friendly Airbnb, Google Maps or Uber. And if people are staying home they can take advantage of larger screens and keyboards that allow for faster text input.

That's good news for companies that make PC hardware, software and peripherals, which were suppressed by the rise of mobile devices like Apple's iPhone and competitors running Google's Android operating system.

"Customers are using Windows PCs to stay productive, connect and learn in this time. In fact, over 4 trillion minutes are being spent on Windows 10 a month, a 75% increase year on year," Panos Panay, Microsoft's chief product officer, wrote in a blog post on Monday. Windows had nearly 87% share of the PC operating system market in April, according to NetMarketShare, and in March, Microsoft said it had reached 1 billion active Windows 10 devices.

After Windows, the second most popular PC operating system is Apple's MacOS, with about 10% share in April. In the quarter ended March 28, the Mac active installed base hit a record high, Luca Maestri, Apple's finance chief, told analysts on a conference call Thursday. The company expects Mac revenue growth to accelerate in the current quarter, Maestri said. (On Monday Apple announced a new MacBook Pro laptop with an improved keyboard.)

Sales of notebook PCs and PC accessories jumped in the first two weeks of March, according to the NPD Group, and PC sales grew some 53% during the week of April 18, a company spokesperson told CNBC in an email on April 27.

"PCs have grown by at least 30% each of the last five weeks," the spokesperson wrote. "Chromebook sales have been up over 100% for each of those weeks. Windows sales up 36% last week and 45% for the last five weeks." IDC estimated that PC shipments were down about 10% in the first quarter because of lower supply.

The resurgence of the personal computer is not necessarily coming at the expense of mobile devices, although people are generally less mobile than usual in places where officials have directed people to stay home.

The New York Times found that Apptopia and SimilarWeb data from January through March showed spikes in the use of websites like Facebook and Netflix, and less pronounced usage increases for those apps. 

Last month Facebook announced two product updates that make it easier to use some of its most popular services from a desktop or laptop computer. It announced the availability of MacOS and Windows clients for its Messenger chat app, and it made Instagram direct messages available on the web.

The new golden age of the PC may not last long, however. Governments are still deciding when people can return to offices, schools and other facilities. 

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Albion's Ware: Tech has been able to withstand COVID-19 pandemic, emerge as a utility
Albion's Ware: Tech has been able to withstand COVID-19 pandemic, emerge as a utility