As Chromebook sales soar in schools, Apple and Microsoft fight back

Few saw the Chromebook coming. When it launched half a decade ago, the category was broadly maligned for its limited feature set, middling hardware specs and operation that required an always-on internet connection to work properly. But things change in five years. In 2015, the category overtook MacBooks in the U.S. for the first time ever, selling around two million units in Q1. It’s a pretty astonishing number for a product many pundits deemed doomed in its early stages. And that victory has been largely fueled by the K-12 education market.

Recent numbers from consulting firm Futuresource paint a similar picture, with Google commanding 58 percent of U.S. K-12 schools. Windows is in second with around 22 percent and the combined impact of MacOS and iOS are close behind at 19 percent. It’s a rapidly shifting landscape. Three years earlier, Apple’s products represented nearly half of devices being shipped to U.S. classrooms.

Now some of the biggest players in technology are poised to make a new push into education. Last month, Apple released a newly refreshed version of its Classroom app, coupled with its lowest priced iPad ever. In January, Microsoft announced plans for a low-cost laptop, coupled with cloud-based software. In a week, it’s expected to unveil its next big move at an education event in New York, aimed at going head to head with the Chromebook.

For many schools, the dream of a one-device-per-child experience has finally been realized through a consumer technology battle waged by the biggest names in the industry. Over the past decade, Google, Apple and Microsoft have shaped the conversation around technology in schools, but as ever, none are in agreement on a one-size-fits-all approach. One thing all the players seem to agree on is that education is a market well worth pursuing.

The kids can’t wait

Education had always been an essential part of Apple’s DNA. The company saw the value of bringing its devices to the classroom almost immediately. Steve Jobs saw the wide-ranging potential of the school market early on. Two years after Apple was founded, it scored a contract to bring 500 computers to Minnesota schools.

“One of the things that built Apple II’s was schools buying Apple II,” Jobs said in a backward-looking interview from 1995. “We realized that a whole generation of kids was going to go through the school before they even got their first computer so we thought the kids can’t wait. We wanted to donate a computer to every school in America.”

Both Apple and Microsoft flourished in the computer lab models. But even with education discounts, their respective desktops were still fairly pricey — expensive enough to make the dream of providing every student with their own system a distant pipe dream.

“You could get 20 or 30 [computers] for the school, but you couldn’t get one for every student,” IDC analysts Linn Huang tells TechCrunch. “And then netbooks came around and blew up in education. A lot of the reason is because this was the first time we put affordable hardware in front of buyers.”

When they arrived on the scene in 2007, netbooks were a breakthrough technology; they were rugged, light and, most importantly, affordable, a perfect combination of traits for cash-strapped school districts. They were also an important driver in the growing early 21st century drive to make technology in K-12 classrooms a more one-on-one experience.

Initially, netbooks’ reign was as short-lived in the classroom as it was in the consumer market. The price was right, but the hardware wasn’t. The keyboards were sub par, the screens were bad and processing just crawled. Just as educators and the public began to sour on the notion of netbooks, Apple arrived on the scene and filled the hole perfectly.

The rise of the iPad

From the outside, it seems that the iPad’s success in education was something of a happy coincidence for Apple. That’s not to say, of course, that the company didn’t see the educational potential in the “magical” piece of glass and metal. It promoted apps like “The Elements” from the outset, as it worked to convince a still-skeptical press that its new offering was more than just a big iPhone.

And as Phil Schiller would put it, addressing a crowd at an event a few years later, “education is deep in Apple’s DNA.” That aspect had never left the company, as a generation who grew up using Apple IIe and Macintosh units in computer labs began making computer-purchasing decisions of their own.

But while education wasn’t the primary focus in the launch of the first iPad, the potential for the devices as part of classroom curriculum came into sharp focus as the limitations of netbooks became painfully clear. iPads offered a premium hardware experience, and with a starting price of $499 retail, they weren’t exactly cheap, but were certainly comparable to some netbooks.

They were also a heck of a lot cheaper than Apple’s own laptop offerings, and likely cannibalized shipments of much pricier MacBooks to schools, though, as Cook happily pointed out at the time, they appeared to be doing a lot more damage to Windows PCs in the space.

Excitement around iPads in education hit a fever pitch in 2013, when the Los Angeles Unified School District announced an incredibly ambitious play to put the devices in the hands of all its students, for a total of around $1.3 billion. That deal ultimately ended in disaster, thanks to questionably preferential treatment and unfinished software from education publishing house Pearson.

Stumble aside, Apple continued to utterly dominate education. Slates had eclipsed netbooks in the education sector, and by the company’s own estimates, iPads controlled around 94 percent of the tablet market in that space. But another contender had been waiting in the wings, ready to turn the entire segment on its head.

The coming of Chromebooks

In a perfect world, price would be no object when it comes to education. But back here on planet Earth, it’s a key factor in the decision-making process for the IT departments that do most of the device purchases for schools and districts.

But the story of the Chromebook isn’t simply one of undercutting the competition. If that were the case, netbooks might still have a place outside of junk drawers. The rise of iPads (and to a lesser degree, other tablets) in the educational space revealed many teachers’ desires for additional inputs. For all of their early constraints, like limited offline functionality, what Chromebooks have always offered is a complete hardware solution, including a full-size keyboard.

Even more importantly, the devices’ software was designed with large-scale deployment in mind.