Here’s what Apple won’t say when it talks Tuesday about its technology in schools: The company lost, and it will be tough to turn around its fortunes.
Apple Inc. on Tuesday pitched a refreshed version of Apple’s basic iPad and software tailored for schools. (The price of the device remains US$329 for most buyers and US$299 for schools.) Apple has a long history in the education market with its Mac computers and more recently with its iPads. But the company has lost a gargantuan amount of ground to alternative computing devices in the United States, particularly to the stripped-down Chromebook laptops powered by Alphabet Inc.’s Google software.
Chromebooks accounted for 60 per cent of laptops, tablet and other mobile computers shipped to U.S. K-12 schools in the third quarter of 2017, according to FutureSource Consulting. Apple’s iPads accounted for 12 per cent of those school devices, less than half of its market share in 2014. Schools don’t necessarily have big budgets, but tech companies have turned them into a battleground to build loyalty among future technology buyers.
I’m sure Apple’s new iPads will be compelling and that the company will address some of the problems that cropped up when the first generations of iPads made their way into U.S. classrooms. (Think about clever kids getting around content restrictions on school-provided devices and questions about how school districts chose which technology to buy and whether it was a waste of money.)
The biggest challenge for Apple is that as Chromebooks have swept through U.S. schools, administrators, teachers and students have grown to like the combination of easy-to-use computers plus software that children can use for coursework both in and out of class.
Chromebooks have Google’s collection of email, document software and other familiar technology that children can log into from any device. They also have relatively simple technology for school districts to restrict what corners of the internet their students can access. Microsoft Corp. took a wrong turn last year with its education strategy, but it has generally been revamping Windows and its Office software bundle to make them more appealing to schools and students.
As for Apple, the company has some good apps and programs for teachers and students, including one to teach children how to write computer code. But Apple has essentially given up on iWork, its own version of Microsoft Office.
And the company has a broader problem, too. Apple will no doubt promise its technology will do everything Chromebooks can do but better. But its track record of clunky software including iCloud and iTunes doesn’t inspire confidence in its ability to make no-fuss software tailored for schools. That includes the type of device-management software that has been one of the biggest selling points for Chromebooks in schools.
The backdrop of Apple’s renewed education strategy is the struggles of its iPad business. Unit sales peaked in 2013 and have been declining ever since. Apple smartly followed Microsoft’s lead by making a laptop-like version of the iPad with a keyboard and a stylus – despite Steve Jobs’s hatred of the digital pens.
The introduction of the iPad Pro and cost reductions for the basic iPad have helped Apple’s sales, but it’s clear that the iPad hasn’t been the world-changing device that the smartphone was. It’s sensible for Apple to find as many segments of the market as it can for a device category with little natural growth left. That’s not a compelling pitch to schoolchildren or their parents, but it’s Apple’s reality: It needs children to help keep the iPad going.
Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.