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How deep is the Chromebook shortage — and when might it end?

Peter Krass's picture

by Peter Krass on 10/12/2020
Blog Category: devices

It’s not often that Chromebooks make the front page of The New York Times, but then these aren’t ordinary times. “Schoolchildren stalled for months by a growing laptop shortage,” the Times this morning declared.

Suppliers of Chromebooks are facing a double whammy. First, with the pandemic keeping many school kids at home, there’s been a surge in worldwide demand for low-cost laptops and Chromebooks. Second, there’s also been a shortage of devices, due to factories closing during the early days of the pandemic as well as by U.S. government sanctions on some Chinese suppliers.

In August the Associated Press reported that the world’s 3 biggest computer companies — Lenovo, HP and Dell — have told school districts they’d have a shortage of nearly 5 million laptops. That was based on the AP’s interviews with over two dozen U.S. schools, districts in 15 states, suppliers, computer companies and industry analysts.

In letters to educators, Lenovo blamed the sanctions for its backlog of 3 million Chromebooks, according to Recode. HP told school systems that its shortage of 1.7 million laptops was due to pandemic-related production shortages of components made in China.

Making the situation worse, some U.S. school districts have had to wait for federal coronavirus relief funding. The Patterson (N.J.) Public Schools had to wait until May for the funding to order 14,000 Chromebooks, according to The New York Times. Then the school’s shipments were further delayed due to U.S. Commerce Dept. restrictions on the devices’ Chinese manufacturer.

Cool for school

The K-12 education market has traditionally been the source of the biggest demand for Chromebooks. Schools like Chromebooks because they’re relatively cheap (around $300), they’re durable, and they’re simple.

Another reason schools like Chromebooks: Basically, the devices are what used to be called “thin clients.” A Chromebook doesn’t need much more than an OS and an Internet connection. Since Chromebook applications live in the cloud, schools don’t need to worry about keeping those applications updated or patched.

The exact dimensions of the surge for these devices isn’t yet clear. In June Futuresource Consulting predicted that shipments for PCs for K-12 would rise 18% this year, for a worldwide total of 36 million devices. Looking ahead to 2021, it expects another 15% rise, for total shipments of 41 million units worldwide.

Now the school year is under way, and many students are either learning from home full-time or engaging in “hybrid learning” — some days at school, some days at home. Having a laptop or Chromebook has gone from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have.

When does the backlog end?

That is the question.

During the first half of this year, both distributors and channel resellers had a hard time meeting Chromebook demand. Chinese OEMs were still not operating at full capacity. Some components were also hard to find. And transportation times were stretched due to reliance on sea freight. All that caused delays.

Looking ahead, it could get better, and possibly soon. Back in June, Futuresource Consulting predicted that most shipments would be back by the third quarter. However, that quarter has come and gone. Could the fourth quarter be the charm?

Basically, supply has to catch up with demand. Top vendors are trying with new, shiny Chrome. Just today, Lenovo introduced the ThinkPad C13 Yoga Chromebook, a convertible device retailing for a relatively high (for a Chromebook) $580.

Mainly intended for use by adults at work, this Chromebook and others like it could help the situation by lowering demand for Chrome devices better suited for school kids. While that may not be a front-page story, for stressed-out parents, it should be welcome news. 

ADDENDUM: Shortly after I posted this, Gartner released its estimates for PC shipments in the year's third quarter. Although Gartner's PC figures do not include Chromebooks, the firm said it believes Chromebook shipments grew by approximately 90% in the third quarter, compared to a year ago. This demand was driven by distance learning due to the pandemic, especially in the U.S. Including Chromebooks, the total worldwide PC market grew around 9% in Q3 year over year, Gartner adds. Chromebooks represented about 11% of the combined market.


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