The Tech Battle for U.S. Education

on April 8, 2016

For many years, U.S. educators had a somewhat uneasy relationship with technology. Forward-thinking teachers and administrators knew their students needed to learn and use it but questions about how to insert it into the learning process—and how to pay for it—often lead to poor results. That’s changed dramatically in recent years, as hardware, software, and services have evolved and become less expensive and educators have figured out ways to embed technology into the classroom. As a result, device shipments into K-12 and Higher Education institutions in the U.S. has surged. This positive development has also quietly created a fascinating microcosm of the battle among tech titans Apple, Microsoft, and Google. At stake: The hearts and minds of the next generation of tech workers.

The Impact of iPad and Chromebooks

Obviously, Macs and Windows PCs have played a long and storied role in US education. But a review of historical data shows that, for much of recent history, the number of personal computers purchased by educational institutions was, at best, on a slow build. In 2000, total U.S. education shipments were about 4.3M units. By 2009, that had increased only modestly to about 6M units per year. Then, in 2010, Apple introduced the first iPad and educators instantly gravitated to the device. In 2010, total education device shipments (tablets plus PCs) increased to 6.7M units. Apple iPads, and to a lesser extent other tablets, fueled significant growth for the next few years, driving total shipments past 8.5M units in 2012. (Note: These totals represent units shipped to educational institutions and do not represent devices purchased by students or parents.)

During this time, Google recognized the opportunity and moved to make its formerly consumer-centric Chromebook offering into an education product. It worked: In 2012, low-cost Chromebooks began to ship and the combined market of Microsoft, Apple, and Google-based products saw shipments increase from about 10M units in 2013 to 13.5M units in 2015.

Many things changed from 2010-2015. In addition to devices becoming more affordable, more manageable, and more portable, educators began to explore new ways of using them in the classroom. Instead of banishing devices to the back of the class to be used during down time, teachers started using the connected devices during class, driving new, tailored learning experiences to each student. New apps that were easier to find and less expensive to buy thanks to online app stores drove much of this growth. Students weren’t the only ones to benefit. Teachers went from being tentative tech users to serious advocates and found it often made their lives easier, freeing them up to spend more time teaching and less time shuffling papers.

2016 and Beyond

In the course of the last 15 years, the US education system has seen Microsoft, Apple, and Google each as the flavor of the moment. Google’s Chrome clearly has the momentum as we head into the 2016 education buying season. But I’d argue all three companies have done good work in 2015 and 2016 to better position themselves for growth this year. Google has signed up a growing list of hardware vendors–willing to sell devices at ever-lower prices–while continuing to build out a simple but robust system for deploying and managing Chromebooks. Apple recently updated iOS to make it easier for multiple students to sign into the same iPad, launched the iPad Pro with Apple Pencil support, and continues to drive great app innovation on its platform. And Microsoft, which saw its share of the market decline with the rise of iOS and Chrome, is battling back by focusing on unique capabilities within Windows and Office, prepping a more competitive online store, and focusing on the learning possibilities engendered by devices with an active stylus.

So why does this matter? In addition to the fact education has been one of the few bright spots in the US device market for the last few years, I’d argue Microsoft, Apple, and Google are competing for more than device shipments in the current year. They’re fighting to become the platform of choice for the next generation of U.S. workers. A positive experience using Chrome, iOS or Windows, and the key apps on each platform, paves the way for that platform to become their preferred one when they enter the workforce. Conversely, repeated bad experiences with any of these platforms in school could have the opposite impact.

Competition is always a good thing and the increasingly competitive battle among these companies to serve students and educators is a very good thing. As more schools in the U.S. slowly march toward the dream of one device per student, and the new ways of learning this will enable, I expect continued innovation from all three companies and their partners.