The Tech Battle for U.S. Education

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.

Published by

Tom Mainelli

Tom Mainelli has covered the technology industry since 1995. He manages IDC's Devices and Displays group, which covers a broad range of hardware categories including PCs, tablets, smartphones, thin clients, displays, and wearables. He works closely with tech companies, industry contacts, and other analysts to provide in-depth insight and analysis on the always-evolving market of endpoint devices and their related services. In addition to overseeing the collection of historical shipment data and the forecasting of shipment trends in cooperation with IDC's Tracker organization, he also heads up numerous primary research initiatives at IDC. Chief among them is the fielding and analysis of IDC's influential, multi-country Consumer and Commercial PC, Tablet, and Smartphone Buyer Surveys. Mainelli is also driving new research at IDC around the technologies of augmented and virtual reality.

28 thoughts on “The Tech Battle for U.S. Education”

  1. “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.”

    That was the argument at least Apple advocates used. I don’t know how much this was the thinking within Apple. And it never took Macs beyond the traditional niches it already staked out. For all the educational landscape Macs held in education, it never seemed to dent Windows in the workforce.

    And poor experiences of Windows at work or education (do people really think Windows was an exceptional experience in the enterprise or in education?) it did not seem to affect their consumer face, at least until iPads and lethargy in upgrades.

    I think the thing is, once outside of education there are other forces at work to direct consumer spending on computing devices. I don’t believe the “hook them in school and you got them for life” holds true in any but the most superfluous of instances. It certainly won’t help Chromebooks, either.

    I don’t do this kind of research for a living. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think this was true when Windows was the dominant platform across consumer and commercial. People might have wanted an alternative, but it was easy for IT to just say no. Obviously, Windows is still the primary platform in established, legacy businesses in the US, but there are plenty of situations where Google and Apple are making inroads.

      1. You may be right. I just don’t think one area of life makes that much of a difference in others anymore (within this discussion). MS Windows dominance in business isn’t helping them in mobile. The Mac’s dominance in education, even facing Windows, didn’t help it in either consumer or business. Google’s dominance in smartphones is helping in business, but Windows is still dominant, and only to the extent it can tie in to Windows workflows.

        I am sure I am being too reductionist. Everything contributes to some degree I’m sure. Just not as much as described here. Different areas of life are driven by different decision factors.


        1. Everything contributes to a certain degree, but unless the contribution is large, it will be drowned in the sea of noise. Simply assuming that small contributions will retain their effects two-steps down the line (Education to consumer to corporate) suggests lack of appreciation of how noisy systems work.

    2. “I don’t believe the “hook them in school and you got them for life” holds true”

      You’ve got it exactly right. Now that tech is truly consumer-facing (meaning the buying decision is made by the person using the device), that changes the game. The dominance of Windows was the exception, not the rule. Today you have to deliver value that aligns with the consumer (the buyer/user) in some meaningful way. This is why consumer markets are normally segmented and have many winners, not just one.

      1. “This is why consumer markets are normally segmented and have many winners, not just one.”

        Really??? Then why does almost everyone in the US drive cars with piston engines that consume gasoline? Other fuels are available and other engine designs are available. And cars have also run on electricity, steam and even compressed air. Windows is more like piston engines than a monolithic product.

        1. You’ve misunderstood the point. While most cars use the internal combustion engine, no one company has ‘won’ the market. And as we move to electric vehicles the same will hold true. Consumer markets are naturally segmented, which means lots of opportunity for lots of companies (many winners).

    3. Totally agree. Ben Bajarin has also written here that BYOD is not as prevalent as one may think, especially regarding PCs. Hence even if consumer preferences were affected by their exposure at schools, it would not affect their work PC in most cases.
      “The myth of BYOD”

      The current article, in my opinion, relies too heavily on two flimsy assumptions, neither of which has been backed by data as far as I know.

      1. Consumer preferences will be affected by the device they use at school.
      2. Work PC preferences will be affected by the device that consumers choose.

      1. Again, I think these comments held more sway when Windows was the one and only standard for business use. There has been much written here about Apple’s drive into enterprise, and yet you don’t think that this is driven by consumer preference? As for the impact of the devices in education, I’d argue that we’ve not yet seen the impact of devices widely embedded in schools. When Macs and PCs were just the underused devices that sat in the back of the classroom they didn’t have much impact on consumer preference. Now that they’re being used, and having a much more positive impact, I think that could change.

        1. Apple’s drive into the enterprise is driven mainly by iOS devices, not by Macs. That is one major point given in Ben’s article. BYOD is mostly about mobile devices and not PCs. Of course, Bob O’Donnel has also convincingly shown that BYOD is not as strong a trend as one might think by just reading the tech press. The effect of consumer choice in corporate IT decisions is hardly something that can be blindly assumed at this point.

          And yes, Apple is driving forward into enterprise, but instead of relying on consumers to push the corporate IT agenda, they are teaming up with IBM. They are tackling this from the corporate IT side. Not the side that would be affected by young kids straight out of college who may have used iPads in K-12.

          And I think you are admitting that there is not yet any substantial evidence that school use has had any impact on enterprise use. As jfrutal mentions, history suggests it doesn’t happen. It might change this time, but how strong is your argument? it seems pretty weak to me.

          1. I didn’t claim there was evidence about school use and enterprise use, I suggested that it might be different this time. Is this site called TechFacts?

      2. I’d think they probably won’t be affected in a hugely positive way (no “I want to use the OS I used in school and that’s it”, but they’ll probably be affected in a.. non-negative way ? No “What’s that ChromeOS you’re talking about ? You can’t to anything but FaceBook with it, and can’t use it offline ! Me no want !”.

        Plus ChromeOS skews towards using Google apps. Those are probably stickier than the OS (everyone’s got your gmail, and you’ve got those achievements, you can gmap your bike rides to friends’… you’ll stick with that on Windows, iOS, MacOS), and Google is probably more focused on those apps that the underlying OS.

        Also depends what’s the ownership: do kids get to keep their laptops when moving on to Real Life or University ? Kind of creates a critical mass for devs too, I’m guessing it’s far above WinPhone ?

        1. Agree that if there is any stickiness, it will be on the Google apps/docs side and not on the Chrome OS side. Obviously it helps that Windows/Android/iOS/Mac users can also use Google apps, and not only the 1-2% in the US (I’m using web usage stats here) that maybe using Chromebooks. This article would have been much more convincing if that was the argument that had been made.

          1. I’m trying to figure out sales and destination right now.

            Apparently in 2015 the US laptop market by volume was 60% Wintel, 30% Chromebooks, and 10% MacOS. Can’t find how much of that 30% went to edu.

    4. I also agree. I think brand loyalty is not what it used to be. My grandson spends a lot of time on an iPad at home playing games and watching videos. But his middle school uses just Chromebooks. It’s much more practical and affordable than iPads and allows him to access the same Google docs and files from his Apple computer at home.
      In speaking with his teachers, they avoided iPads because of their high cost, lack of a filing system, no keyboard, and a higher maintenance cost. Chromebooks cost 1/3 the price and do a lot more. These days it’s more about using devices that do the job, not about which name is on the product.

    5. There are a couple of counter-arguments to that:

      – especially for a minority, slightly unconventional platform such as ChromeOS, getting product in the end of teachers, students, and their parents does count as PR. Most people have no idea how Chrome OS looks and feels, even think it needs a ‘net connection.

      – on top of that PR/evangelism effect , given the cost structure, it is a profitable business in its own right, so there’s no downside really

      1. I agree with both points. For your first point the same was said about the Mac when it first hit the schools and the whole GUI (Apple II was already in many schools). I have no doubt that was a helpful PR move (your second point), but it still did little to move Macs beyond graphics and publishing industries (and science and engineering according to Jobs and Tim B., but with family in both I still don’t see that).

        The problem with using schools as a marketing means is several. First there is already a large contingent that fights anything but Windows in schools (both parents and administrators, Maine being a recent example that comes to mind). Their point is kids should be using what they are going to use in the “real world”. The problem with that is computers in school is about education, not vocational training. (Which makes me wonder if Chromebooks are finding similar resistance).

        The second problem is it only puts the computer in front of teachers and kids. The teachers may or may not know what to do with technology or even care (always an issue). Part B of that is the kids are at the mercy of what the parents will buy for them. And the parents will buy based on other pressures than what is good for “education” (that argument is a two edged sword), especially if they think Windows is better for education anyway.

        (This of course doesn’t even take into consideration the corruption that takes place, like the hundreds of computers that turned up in NYC schools sitting in a warehouse, purchased but unopened.)


        1. .edu presence indeed not a substitute for nor a harbinger of mainstream success, and probably not much of an ad campaign.

          I think for ChromeOS it’s a lifeline though. Edu makes 2/3 of ChromeOS sales. w/o Edu, Chrome OS would be just another Desktop Linux ^^

          1. Good discussion.

            Google is also facing headwinds on collecting student data, although they have sneakily tried on multiple occasions. This might have been one of their business cases in the past, but they are likely to completely lose this in the near future.


            It is starting to look like Google’s only reason for staying in the education business is to prop up Chrome OS (unless they are making good profits, which is very unlikely).

          2. Google is supporting 2 entire free (as in beer) ecosystems for the money they think/know they can make off ads. Supporting, developing, … those ecosystems must cost hundreds of millions.

            Compared to those 100M$, giving students free (as in ads-free) access to these ecosystems has a marginal cost of essentially zero (the hardware & support is sold above cost; the software is already made, the cloud apps & storage for a few 100K students must be negligible out of their billion users), and will probably lock them in for the rest of their adult lives. It’d take those odds: 4 years free for 40/60 years “paid” (via ads). We French call doubling our money “doing the tumble”, that’s a compound tumble, for very little initial investment.

            Unless you start assigning ChromeOS ecosystem costs (dev, support, cloud) to the edu users. Since edu is 60% of ChromeOS users, that’d be more than legitimate. I’m not sure if Google is doing that internally. Do they consider they’d be spending the money on ChromeOS anyway ?

          3. As to whether they’ll be spending money on Chrome OS going forward, the Pixel C fiasco where there is clear evidence that it was changed to an Android device at the last minute, suggests that they won’t. Sundar Pichai, who was involved in the development of Chrome OS, is apparently coming to his senses.

            Which leaves the Google sales reps selling Chromebook installations in an awkward situation. I’m sure that institutional buyers will rate the longevity of the platform very high in the list of purchasing criteria. If Google cannot demonstrate that, I’m sure the Chromebook market share in education will deteriorate quite rapidly.

          4. For what it’s worth, Google recently committed to ongoing work on ChromeOS:

            It’s clear having 2 ecosystems that are on track to offer similar capabilities is a bit silly. ChromeOS has touch support and the ability to run Android apps, Android is getting WIMP support and has the ability to run Chrome apps (browser, not OS, but the difference is getting ever smaller). But ChromeOS solves the updates/security problem (it is currently the safest mainstream OS, Desktop or Mobile) , and makes management and admin and use way easier.

            ChromeOS and Android are utterly close though: ChromeOS is a Chrome-only Linux variant, Android is an ART-only Linux variant. I can easily imagine a choice to boot into one or the other runtime environment, based on management policies. That only requires running both ecosystems off the same underlying Linux, and making sure devices with the ChromeOS personality keep getting updates à la Nexus, not à la … never ;-p

          5. Longevity of platform in this instance seems to favour Chromebooks, I would think. Since Chromebooks are essentially just an internet web device, from a software perspective Google is already committed to what makes a Chromebook usable—the web browser and (mostly) Google apps.

            From the hardware side that would depend on the vendor, which, in schools institutional terms is not always the hardware maker. For instance Dell was a huge school systems’ vendor. Per those rules, they couldn’t just sell Dell computers, though. They had be willing to sell and support Macs. But since they didn’t really want to, they would price them high enough (higher than retail and higher than Apple’s own educational pricing) that no one in their right mind could justify the cost.

            Also on the hardware side, the Book itself doesn’t have to do much client side computational tasks, so they aren’t the most cutting edge internals. So upkeep should be fairly cost effective, I would think. Even if the maker goes out of business. At least as long as there aren’t any proprietary internals or manufacturing processes.


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