McCracken: Why Apple’s New Push Into Schools Has Less to Do With Dethroning Chromebook Than Wooing a New Generation of Hearts & Minds
Apple made a strategic decision to hold its education-themed media event at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago, a renowned magnet school housed in a well-preserved 1934 building. Instead of hosting the event at its Cupertino headquarters, the company wanted to showcase its commitment to education by inviting tech journalists to visit this esteemed school.
During the event, CEO Tim Cook and other Apple executives not only unveiled new products like the iPad and various software and services tailored for students and teachers, but also emphasized Apple’s dedication to education. After the presentations, attendees, including myself, had the opportunity to experience the newly announced offerings firsthand by visiting classrooms where members of Apple’s education team assisted us.
Apple aimed to inspire attendees with this back-to-school experience, hoping to evoke a positive response. However, once the event was over, the harsh reality of the education market in 2018 became clear for Apple.
In 1976, Steve Wozniak donated the very first computer produced by the small startup he co-founded with Steve Jobs to a junior high school algebra teacher. During the era of the Apple II and Mac, the company dominated the classroom computing field, generating substantial revenue and maintaining a strong corporate image.
Nevertheless, today’s quintessential classroom computer is the Chromebook, equipped with Google’s nine-year-old Chrome OS platform. According to research firm Futuresource Consulting, Chromebooks accounted for 60 percent of mobile computing devices shipped to K-12 schools in the US in the third quarter of 2017, while Apple’s iPads and Macs only represented 17 percent.
A major contributing factor to the success of Chromebooks is their affordability, with prices starting below $200, as opposed to the $299 education price tag for Apple’s new iPad. Additionally, the Chromebook’s familiar laptop design and physical keyboard cater to tasks such as test-taking and typing, which remain critical in educational settings. Most importantly, Google provides a comprehensive suite of cloud-based services that cover everything from word processing to website creation to assignment distribution and parent communication. These services are accessible on any device a student or teacher logs into, and they are all free.
Although Apple did not explicitly mention Chromebooks by name during the Chicago event, certain aspects of their announcements clearly aimed to address the same needs that Google successfully fulfilled. For instance, Apple introduced an app called Schoolwork, which allows teachers to assign reading materials to students via the iPad and even direct them to specific sections within apps, using a new feature called ClassKit. Moreover, the company unveiled a sturdy $100 keyboard case, manufactured by Logitech, which transforms the iPad into a more laptop-like device, designed specifically for typing, similarly to a Chromebook.
However, Apple also accentuated the distinguishing features of the iPad compared to Chromebooks. While Chromebooks prioritize utilitarian functionality, Apple executive Greg Joswiak declared the iPad "a magical sheet of glass that can become anything we want it to be." Joswiak illustrated this point by showcasing a student using an iPad to record video footage of flora for a school project, conveying the message that such versatility cannot be achieved with a $200 Chromebook.
Furthermore, iPads excel in tasks such as photo and video editing, music creation, drawing, and painting, which are not particularly strong suits of Chromebooks. Instead of reducing the price of the new iPad to compete with Google, Apple maintained the current cost and added support for the iPad Pro’s pressure-sensitive stylus called the Pencil, making this entry-level device an even more powerful tool for artistic endeavors. The Pencil has other applications as well, as demonstrated on stage when it was used to virtually dissect a frog using Apple’s augmented-reality technology.
In conclusion, Apple’s education event in Chicago showcased the company’s continued commitment to education. Despite the popularity of Chromebooks in the education market, Apple emphasized the unique strengths of iPads, particularly in creative tasks. While Google dominates the affordable computer market, Apple strives to provide a more versatile and powerful tool that caters to the diverse needs of students and teachers.
While there has been a lot of excitement surrounding the Chicago event, the response from those invested in educational technology has been mixed. Some have approached it with cautious optimism, while others have been more skeptical. This serves as a reminder that Chromebooks have become as ingrained in the market as Apple devices once were. However, Apple doesn’t have to regain the majority of its market share in order to thrive. The company has already demonstrated its ability to generate significant profit from products with smaller market shares compared to their competitors (such as Windows PCs and Android phones). It is likely that Apple will be able to achieve similar success by selling iPads to schools for $299.
Nevertheless, Apple’s involvement in education has always been about more than just making products and profits. The company’s presence in classrooms has had a positive impact on society. Apple has successfully shown that it sits at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, a concept that Steve Jobs often referred to and that Tim Cook emphasized during his presentation at Lane Tech. By introducing young people to Apple’s hardware and software, the company has influenced their preference for Apple products as they progress through their education and into the workforce.
In 2001, Jobs spoke at the National Educational Computing Conference in Chicago and expressed that Apple’s dedication to education went beyond financial motivations. He emphasized that they genuinely cared about making a difference in education. Seventeen years later, in the same city, Apple demonstrated that this commitment still holds true. However, it will require more than just one event to ensure that education reciprocates this commitment.