Tech Talk: Microsoft Is Battling The Chromebook Education Market

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Educators are adopting the Google Chromebook platform, shunning the expensive and fragile Apple iPad, and the complicated Windows laptop market. Over the years we've seen schools buying more and more Chromebooks for students and the devices are helped by coming complete with a keyboard, as many school districts insist that computers for education come with a hardware keyboard. The equipment itself is relatively inexpensive helped because Chrome OS has a light touch compared with many other operating systems, which means that Chrome OS computers do not need especially powerful hardware. Additional software for educators is cheap at just $30 and the Chromebook platform is easy to setup and deploy, and thanks to how Chrome OS offers seamless updating, is fast and easy to maintain with software updates.

We've seen Microsoft release and re-release different products designed to take on the Chromebook platform head on, plus supporting marketing literature denouncing the Chromebook's lack of offline functionality. However, these tactics do not appear to be working in isolation as the company is still pushing its computers for education. It's also true that Microsoft has been able to watch how the Chromebook has steadily pushed into the education sector and has learned from Google. Windows 10 was offered as a free upgrade for many customers and on a cheap computer, licence costs can make up a big part of the overall cost. Furthermore, Windows 10 has been refined and made more efficient such that the operating system runs well on similar hardware to the Google Chromebook: the days of a slow, cheap laptop offering a torrid Windows experience are mostly behind us, at least if system administrators are able to manage and maintain the device.

Here, Microsoft has learned something from Google too and the company has launched a new "Intune for Education" program, built upon Microsoft's Intune service, which sets up and manages student's Windows 10 laptops. Along with the program are new laptops from established brands, such as Acer, HP and Lenovo, with prices starting from $189. The Intune for Education service costs the same as Google's equivalent, at $30 per device, with Microsoft excitedly explaining that the program offers "the power, performance and security [of Windows]" for the same price as a Chromebook installation but without any of the compromises. The advertising for the scheme explains how schools "put devices in classrooms and not touch them again for the rest of the school year." Intune for Education also offers an express setup function, which allows system administrators to apply over 150 settings to Windows 10 devices to control the hardware, applications, web browser and antivirus software – assigned to individual students. Intune for Education ships with School Data Sync, which allows students can be placed into different groups for particular applications. On this, Microsoft said: "For example, if a student is added to a photography class in the school roster, they will automatically be added to the group in Intune for Education and get the relevant apps."

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Is this enough? There are some newly launched laptops that are designed with Intune for Education, such as the HP Stream G3 ($189) and the Acer Travelmate Spin B118 convertible (due later in the year for $299). However, Lenovo have not disclosed pricing or availability of their three new laptops designed for the the Intune for Education market, two new variants of a new ThinkPad 11e and the N24 convertible device. There's a specialist education laptop by JP.IK, the Turn T201, which has a 360-degree convertible hinge, an active stylus, a retractable handle, a basic microscope, and a thermal probe. We don't yet have a price for this hardware either. School districts may need to wait and see how inexpensive the new equipment is before deciding if the new Microsoft scheme is worth it.

Another point to consider is if the Microsoft proposition offers the same value as the Google Chromebook and this includes considering the disadvantages of Windows compared with Chromebooks. These include the need to install and maintain antivirus software, and if Office 365 is worth paying for. Currently, the enterprise or corporate world favors using Microsoft Office whereas startup businesses have a preference for Google Docs. Google offers cross-compatibility with Office files, but a Windows machine could run the Google Chrome browser and allow easy access to the Google Docs service. Let's not forget the idea of quickly applying changes to 150 individual settings, either. It's good for educators to have a choice, and each platform offers its own spread of benefits and disadvantages. Microsoft's argument that the Windows platform is more powerful carries some weight, but the hardware is often more expensive and requires more time to setup and maintain. The Chromebook platform is simpler to operate, harder for students to interfere with, runs on inexpensive hardware and is growing quickly in the education sphere: it's understandable why Microsoft is scrabbling around trying to offer a comparable product.