Tech Companies Need to Raise the Bar in Education

Much has been made over the last few years of the battle between Apple and Google in the education sector. Chromebooks, which have sold in small numbers elsewhere, appear to have found their niche in education and are now frequently said to outsell iPads (Microsoft seems to be an also-ran here as in the mobile market). But both Chromebooks and iPads are designed primarily for other uses and neither Google nor Apple has invested anywhere near as meaningfully in the education market as in other segments such as health and the enterprise. Given how much education is prized in Silicon Valley, it’s time for all its standard bearers to change that.

Google and Apple Dominate Education Devices

Apple has always had a strong position in the education market through the Mac for most of its history and, more recently, through the iPad. Education programs and discounts for K-12 education and college students have helped Apple to drive far higher share among both schools and students than among the broader population. It’s not uncommon to see entire college lecture halls filled with glowing Apple logos with few Windows laptops to be seen, in a reversal of the previous pattern. iPads, in turn, have been at the center of Apple’s recent programs in schools, with many school districts purchasing large numbers of iPads for use by students in the classroom.

Also more recently, Google has made significant inroads with Chromebooks, which haven’t sold nearly as well in other settings. Recent research suggested Chromebooks had gained majority market share in education, while Apple’s market share fell significantly. Other studies have confirmed these broad findings, even if not the specific numbers. Chromebooks seem to be a real success story in the classroom, where their low cost, simplicity and ease of management set them apart from other devices. Microsoft retains a meaningful but minority share in the same market, far lower than it enjoys in either the broader consumer or enterprise markets.

Devices and Operating Systems Aren’t Everything

However, devices and operating systems alone aren’t everything. These devices obviously need to be either loaded with software (in the case of iPads and Macs) or pointed at websites and web apps (in the case of Chrome OS) which provide the tools students need to learn. Interestingly, both Google and Apple now have solutions called Classroom which help manage both devices and students’ work, but much of the students’ work itself still gets done in generic Apple tools such as iWork or the Google productivity suite. The Apple App Store and Chrome store provide access to many third party applications, but Apple and Google have yet to produce education-oriented apps for students.

This is interesting in the context of both companies investments in the enterprise and Apple’s recent heavy investment in health care. Apple’s deals with IBM, Cisco, and SAP are designed to push its devices deeper into the enterprise, while its ResearchKit and CareKit efforts are intended to enable innovation in health research and care. Google, too, is making a big push to get its Chromebooks adopted in the enterprise and its productivity suite and related products are also popular among startups and other companies. And yet, neither company has made similar investments in student-facing applications or tools. These are companies with enormous resources and creativity when it comes to creating useful software and applications but we’ve yet to see that innovation applied to the learning end of education.

It’s Not Just About Apple and Google

Even though Apple and Google are the leaders in devices and operating systems for education, there’s no reason why they should bear the sole burden of developing software for use in education. There’s obviously a large number of specialized education software makers which create many of the tools used in educational settings. But Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and others also have the capacity to create the tools students could use for research, projects, and coursework. Interestingly, Mark Zuckerberg has largely chosen to use his personal funds to invest in education, rather than putting Facebook’s corporate resources to use in this sphere. Given how much Silicon Valley needs well-educated, tech-savvy employees, it behooves the entire industry to make a greater investment in fostering education and not just with financial contributions but with their technology expertise. Education has been one of the sectors of the economy most resistant to the technological transformation that’s disrupted and improved so many other sectors and it’s ripe for some major change. Tech companies should be not just enablers but drivers of that change.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

17 thoughts on “Tech Companies Need to Raise the Bar in Education”

  1. Just a clarification: Chromebooks have been able to use local, offline apps for 3 years now. They’re still kind of web apps (use HTML, CSS, javascript), but without the web: downloaded, installed, and executed directly on the Chromebook just like any iOS/Android/Windows/MacOS app. No connection necessary after installation. (2013 !)
    Online-only use was a thing for about the first year of Chromebooks… for some reason, perceptions got stuck on that…

    I’m not sure Google and Apple should get involved beyond supplying OS/ecosystem-levels admin utilities. Both a student-facing and the teacher-facing tools are quite specialized, I’m sure Pearson et al are better equipped do produce compelling apps and content ? A “strategic partnership” might put a shine on things, and generate some PR, but I really don’t think Apple nor Google will get directly involved in content production.

    1. I find the Chromebook offline app discussion interesting, in that people are probably fixating on the wrong issue.

      The presence of offline capability essentially puts Chromebooks at parity with Linux notebooks, feature wise. If you can figure out how to sell Linux PCs to the mass market, then you’ll be able to sell lots of Chromebooks.

      1. I think that analogy is mostly flawed:

        – Agreed, there’s some commonality in that ChromeOS is missing a lot of familiar apps (MS Office is only available online, the Adobe stuff is only slowly becoming available, online-only too, most games are missing…


        – Linux has a learning cliff, ChromeOS has no learning at all. I’ve encountered 2 types of people happy with Linux: utter technoramuses that run the apps installed for them and that’s it, and high-level geeks that can compile a kernel. In-between (that’s me, I used to mess with Linux every other year, they owe me weeks of my life ^^), the combination of unfamiliar terminology, concepts, utils, apps, and the impossibility of finding up to date documentation makes it a nightmare for intermediate-advanced users. On the other hand, ChromeOS handles like a big website, anyone can “admin” it, and it’s impossible to mess up.

        – Linux has advanced but unfriendly apps, ChromeOS has basic and easy apps. Ditto the OS itself: if you manage to avoid the command line (which I never could for very long), the Linux’s shell and utilities are unfamiliar and jarring. ChromeOS essentially has none.

        – Linux has to be installed, ChromeOS comes ready to run. Installing Linux and configuring it randomly oscillates between plug-and-play and devilishly hard. Not something I’ll tell anyone to do, not something I’d commit to do for anyone. I think one of the main reasons for the Raspberry Pi’s success is that the right OS and docs and support are available. Not so any other Linux, you get compatibility issues, outdated docs, and mostly no support.

        – Linux runs on some x86 laptops, ChromeOS runs on cheaper ARM laptops. MS has taken to locking down the BIOS of the cheapest Windows laptops too, and repurposing a Windows laptop is not a 100% proposition in any case.

        – ChromeOS has a couple of aces up its sleeve: the ability to run Linux apps (I know, I just spent a page trashing them, but still), and the upcoming Android apps. For Consumers, that last one in particular is a game changer: offline Office Mobile, Clash of Clans et all, …

        1. For both Linux and Chrome OS, you can find a lot of “why not?” reasons. What is lacking is the “why” reasons.

          And if I wanted to run Android on my laptop, I can find many cheap Android ARM laptops on Alibaba that seem to fit the bill. I don’t see why we need a Chrome OS middleman.

          1. I think in the case of ChromeOS the “why” are there: simpler, lighter, cheaper, longer.

            Simpler as in both simpler to use and simpler to own/admin.

            Just last week, a guy was asking for a 13″ laptop with 8+hr battery life, for $600 max, for a non-techie student. Fairly basic reqs. Seems the only match is Chromebooks ( ).

            A big issue was the missing MS Office. LibreOffice via Crouton ( ) ? That’s not “simple”. Android will probably make that step unnecessary.

            No-name Android laptops bought far abroad (in my case) w/o warranty/support/ AZERTY can only be on the list for nerds experimenting, alas, not for Real People ™ ^^

  2. How much money is in IT devices and services in the classroom?

    Unless their is huge money in this segment, i don’t see neither Apple nor Google making significant investments. The most that I would expect them to do is to provide stuff like iBooks Author or HyperCard to help 3rd parties make content.

    Public companies are obligated to maximise shareholder value, and cannot spend huge sums of money on charities. This is probably why Zuckerberg chose to spend his pocket money.

  3. This point “but much of the students’ work itself still gets done in generic Apple tools such as iWork or the Google productivity suite.” is not completely true. You’ve left out an important Apple component called iTunes U, including iTunes U course Manager. This solution is specifically targeted at K-20 education and is free to use. ( I would also argue that iBooks Author has a major EDU component allowing for Open Education Resources (OER) iBook creation and provides students an avenue to create, and publish work. (

  4. Jan’s comments are well considered – but seem to be inadvertently/unqualified US centric.
    “Microsoft seems to be an also-ran here” may be true for US only education market but doesn’t adequately reflect the rest of the world where Chromebooks are a novelty.
    A recent report referenced by MSFT puts Windows at 47% of worldwide education market.
    OneNote, Microsofts cross platform note taking app, has been developed with a number of education-focused tools and seen reasonable success in servicing this education market.

  5. Simply pointing out that beyond Zuckerberg, the Gates Foundation, as well as Netflix founder Reed Hastings have also been investing heavily in edtech. As for what Apple and Google are or are not doing in terms of educational software, the larger problem with edtech businesses in Silicon Valley, and elsewhere in the world, is that they do not spend enough time talking with educators and students as to what can be improved through technology. Incorrect assumptions are frequently made about what these users need, and the industry is littered with unwanted, unusable educational software.

  6. The problem, in my opinion, isn’t that edtech companies aren’t innovating. The problem is that we, as an education market and industry, do not have clear, consistent and meaningful standards by which to judge educational products. In many other industries: medicine, engineering, law enforcement, just to name a few, we have agreed-upon metrics that tell us whether or not we’re doing a good job. In medicine it’s a no-brainer, right? Do health measures improve? Do patients get better? Do patients die? We don’t have those same agreed-upon metrics in education. In education, not only is there resistance to casting success in terms of metrics, there is little to no agreement on what those metrics ought even be, if they were to be. How many times have we heard “the really important stuff can’t be measured”? Hard to imagine how we expect edtech companies to build innovative products around something that can’t even be measured or perhaps even defined. How, then, to know if a product works?

    Until the education market can agree on what “the problem” we’re trying to solve is…is it improving performance?…is it improving how students “feel” about themselves?…is it teaching students how to have “grit?”…then how can we possibly evaluate the innovation that companies try to apply to the problem. Education is a scattered mess and we can’t expect edtech companies to fix THAT problem. So, in the meantime, edtech companies will continue to develop solutions for SOME problem that someone told them they have. Who knows whether or not it is a meaningful enough problem that, if addressed, will truly impact the achievement gap, the upcoming shortage of students with college degrees, or the seemingly consistent slide in international rankings. Until we have agreed upon, standard metrics, we’ll never know.

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