Apple’s True Goal (and Underlying Strategy) For the Education Market

As I zoom out and think about Apple’s Education focused event from Tuesday, a few things stand out worth digging into. The education market itself is much more a software and services-centric market, from a solutions standpoint, than a hardware one. Yes, the cost is a factor, but it is not the only factor. Many people don’t realize this important point. The average selling price of Chromebooks into educational markets varies between $199-$250 depending on the world region. North America, has the largest number of annual sales of Chromebooks with ~8 million being sold in 2017. However, when you talk to IT managers at educational institutions and educators, it is not the hardware that influences their decisions as much as it is the management software of the hardware and the educator’s ability to manage student work, and communications with students and parents.

Educational environments are also rarely homogeneous. Nearly every institution I’ve talked to talks about how they deploy Chromebooks, Macs, Windows Laptops, and iPads in many cases. Sometimes it is more Windows than Chromebooks, and sometimes it is more Chromebooks than Windows, but overall nearly all hardware is supported. In many cases, they use Microsoft software to manage the backend then Google services like Google Classroom and Google docs for students and teachers. Teachers often use Microsoft Office tools for their administration tools with colleagues, but it is all stored in the cloud. Again, the theme here seems to be, use the best tool for the job.

Whenever I ask heads of educational IT districts or institutions, many deploying 10,000 or more devices, the common answer I get is “it is complicated.” As we study both enterprise and educational markets, it often strikes me that educational markets may be (likely are) the more complex of the two. Which, one could then argue, creates an even more unique challenge for Apple than that which they overcame driving iOS and macOS into a supported standard in corporate environments.

Just to set this point, make no mistake the iPhone was the thing that changed the market for Apple in the enterprise. For educational environments, it is clear iPad is what Apple hopes proves to be the trojan horse to schools the same way iPhone was with businesses. This is where the real work for Apple begins, and they are looking to do it the best way they know how. By changing the conversation.

A New Narrative
This point, changing the conversation, is truly what iPad’s upside depends on holistically with every market. All of Apple’s marketing around iPad seems to hinge on the theme of reframing the discussion around what iPad is and what it can do. This effort has been largely centered on consumer markets, and Apple is now bringing that fight to education.

I’ve long argued, iPad is uniquely positioned as a creativity tool. And for those for whom this point is not entirely obvious, creativity is productivity. Which is a major reason Apple continues to emphasize creativity when it comes to the angles they promote most about iPad. This statement may rub some people the wrong way, but nearly every device out there Windows PC, Mac, Tablet, iPad, Chromebook, can be considered a productivity tool. However, not all of those devices can be considered a creativity tool.

Strategically, how does Apple continue to change the narrative around what the iPad can do? Specifically, around how it is the best tool when it comes to creativity? No doubt, their What is a Computer campaign was a brilliant bit of marketing going in this direction. But their latest video called Homework touches on one thing I think is crucial to iPad’s creativity story–aspiration.

Aspire to Create
There are two important themes Apple is developing around iPad. Aspiration being the first, which is highlighted in the Homework video where kids in a classroom are given an assignment, and the group that created their project on iPad had a next level kind of presentation. The goal here was simple, show kids using a tool to create the kind of project/presentation that other kids in the class would aspire to create. I’m using the word aspiration here instead of inspiration, but the two ideas are related. In a recent interview with Fast Company, Apple VP Angela Ahrendts used the following quote from Apple’s education initiative:

“Connecting people and humanizing technology, maybe our job is to inspire.”

Aspiration is the part of the equation where people are exposed to what is possible. Inspiration is the part of the equation where they believe they can act on their aspiration. This is, at least, how I think about it. With Apple’s attempts to change the narrative around iPad, they need these showcase iPad experiences to be made known in the classroom. This is why I think Apple’s first goal is to equip champions to create the kind of examples that will drive both aspiration and inspiration. I believe this effort will start with teachers. Which is the main reason, I believe, Apple’s first attempt to change the narrative around iPad will include a focus on getting teachers on board with what is possible with creativity on iPad.

Teachers set the curriculum, and in many cases, teachers set the example with many assignments. If Apple can successfully equip teachers with the tools, they need to create the kind of examples around projects and assignments that kids can aspire to create it will go a long way in changing the narrative for iPad. Similarly, the inspiration factor comes in when the teacher can explain how easy it was for them to create this project example on iPad. Hopefully, for Apple, the mindset becomes “if my teacher can do it, so can I.”

It is from this viewpoint; the Everyone Can Create campaign comes to light. When I heard this, I immediately thought of the great Pixar movie Ratatouille and the title of Chef Gusto’s famous book, and motto, that inspired Remy the rat to start cooking –Anyone Can Cook. To truly aspire, and inspire, roadblocks need to be eliminated. Even though it is relatively easy to drive aspiration, convincing ordinary humans they can actually do what they aspire is the hardest part of the equation. All too often, people are paralyzed by self-doubt, and you even see it all the time in schools. Kids will see the kind of project the “smart kids” made and think to themselves “I can never do that.” They may have aspired for more, but felt it was not possible.

Eliminating those barriers that stand in front of what is possible is key for the iPad narrative. This is typically what Apple has done well. Apple’s approach has always been to package sophisticated solutions in the simplest of ways making it easy for humans to use technology in all the ways they want and enable them to do more with that technology than they ever thought possible.

In my opinion, Apple doesn’t need to win the device battle in the classroom to get a win in education. What I mean is they don’t need to displace Chrome or Windows devices in the classroom as the things every student uses in a device 1:1 environment. What they need is for kids to see what is possible with iPad, around everyday assignments, and for them to believe iPad is the only tool to create such compelling stuff. Perhaps then, over time, Apple can win over the decision makers of hardware to at least start deploying at least one or two iPad’s in the class so kids can start sharing and creating on it in ways they can’t on other devices.

This is a long game for Apple, no doubt, and it is one that will take many years and continued investment. But I think some of the right building blocks have been laid. The complexity of educational environments is the biggest part of Apple’s challenge, but if they can continue to drive the narrative around iPad as the ultimate creative tool, and the software and services ecosystem grows to back up that story, then they will be well positioned in the long run.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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