In Chicago yesterday, Apple CEO Tim Cook stepped into the auditorium at Lane Technical College Prep High School and told an audience about the future of education.
It was Apple’s first education-focused event since 2012. Back then, Apple still had the lion’s share of the education market—over half of devices shipped to schools that year ran on iOS or Mac OS—and it had a new plan to replace raggedy, expensive textbooks with cheaper digital versions made to read on a tablet. The iPad was two years old, and while it was pricey, it seemed poised to change the way students could learn.
The company had been in classrooms for years, as far back as the Apple IIe, which Apple donated to schools by the thousands in the early 1980s. Apple wanted to bring its devices into every school in America, to usher in an era of computer literacy and education. And perhaps, to introduce Apple-branded devices to kids early enough to make them lifelong customers.
For a while, that worked. Apple designed a heap of devices over the years specifically for use in the classroom. For generations of American school kids, learning to type, write papers, and research school projects was something you did on a Mac.
Not anymore. Today’s classrooms are powered by Chromebooks and, to a lesser extent, Windows laptops. These are sturdy, versatile, and inexpensive machines that have revolutionized how schools incorporate technology into their classrooms. Steve Jobs wanted to put a computer in the hands of every student. But Chromebooks—not Macbooks—have made that vision a reality.
Gaining a foothold in the classroom isn’t just a way to sell thousands of computers in bulk. It’s a way to capture a generation of young people and teach them what a computer is.
Last year, Chromebooks made up a whopping 58 percent of computing devices shipped to schools. That’s up from 50 percent in 2015, and 38 percent in 2014, according to data from market research firm Futuresource. New Apple devices, meanwhile, dropped to 19 percent—down from 50 percent in 2014. Even Microsoft is gaining an edge with its Windows 10 Laptops, designed for use in schools with the palatable price point of $189.
So Tuesday's event wasn't just a standard product announcement. It was Apple's chance to reinsert itself into the American classroom. Some speculated that the company would introduce a heavily discounted iPad, and new software to rival the likes of Google Classroom, a popular and free web service that helps teachers grade assignments and share information with their class. When Apple's executives took the stage, they did show off a discounted iPad—but at $299 for schools (versus $329 for consumers), it wasn't the price point many had hoped for. This cheaper iPad now supports Apple's Pencil—but of course, that’s sold separately ($99 for consumers, $89 for schools). And there’s no Smart Connector, the port that makes it possible to plug-in accessories like keyboards (also sold separately).
Apple execs danced around the auditorium stage showing how to annotate digital books and create doodles using the Pencil. They debuted a new app, Schoolwork, for teachers to dole out digital assignments, and updated an old app, Classroom, that lets teachers check in on how students are using their iPads. As with any Apple event, this one was full of sparkle and shine. But it's hard to ignore the economics of what Apple is offering: The iPad is still twice the price of a Chromebook, which start at $149, and almost twice the price of Microsoft’s Windows 10 laptop, which costs $189.
"Money is really a big issue," says John Ross, an education technology consultant. "If you're a school district with over 45,000 students, then $299 times that many kids adds up to a lot. Whatever’s cheap and whatever works—that carries more weight than brand loyalty."
Chromebooks, which have come to dominate classrooms, gained popularity around 2012. While Apple was pushing its iPad into schools, the Chromebook offered something simpler, and much more affordable. The laptops run on Chrome OS, which Google licenses to multiple hardware vendors for cheap or free. That creates competition and keeps costs low. For schools, there's no better selling point; Chromebooks are about as cheap as it gets.
But it’s not just price. Chromebooks are also rugged and durable, built to last class after class of kids whacking at their keyboards. They actually have keyboards—something Ross says is basically essential for any classroom above the third grade. Chromebooks update automatically, over Wi-Fi. Everything gets stored in the Cloud, which makes it easy to move between devices and work collaboratively.
For $299, you can give a kid an iPad—without a Pencil, without a Bluetooth keyboard—with a suite of brand new educational apps that students and teachers alike will have to learn how to use. For the same $299, you could buy two Chromebooks, stocked with the suite of Google products (Docs, Gmail, and Classroom) that everyone already likes and understands.
Gaining a foothold in the classroom isn’t just a way to sell thousands of computers in bulk. It’s a way to capture a generation of young people and teach them what a computer is. Google has taught thousands of young people how to use email, share documents, make presentations, and store files on one simple operating system, which shows up on all kinds of hardware. When it comes time for these kids to head off to college and buy laptops of their own, guess where they’ll look first.
Apple's strategy seems to be showing educators all that its machines can do—from products that improve classroom organization to applications that bring textbook material to life in augmented reality. One demonstration Tuesday involved a new app that allows students to dissect a digital frog in AR. But other companies are working toward that future too. Microsoft, in partnership with education company Pearson, is developing a mixed reality curriculum aimed at schools and sells its HoloLens headset at a 10 percent discount to students. The difference? Microsoft also offers a no-frills laptop designed to help teachers and students get through the day.
As the Apple team prepared to set up its keynote at Lane Technical College Prep High School, the school sent around an announcement about the event: "Apple is making some great upgrades to our facilities, like updating the auditorium, refinishing areas inside and out, replacing lighting, touching up paint, and more," a schoolwide email read. "And the great news is that they’ll leave behind all of the improvements they make."
In most schools, basic infrastructure upgrades for little-to-no cost count for more than new technology that lets you dissect a frog in augmented reality. But Apple’s competitors already know that.