Google aiming to remove the iPad from the classroom with its new Chromebook tablets
This week saw Acer announce a new Chrome OS device, the Chromebook Tab 10. Not only is this noteworthy as it is the first tablet to be announced running on Chrome OS, but it is equally as noteworthy as Acer announced the Chromebook Tab 10 as largely aimed at the education market. While this might be seen as a limited sales approach for what is essentially the world’s first Chrome OS-powered tablet, it is a highly strategic move on the part of Acer and Google. The reason being, the Apple iPad.
The classroom before
Over the last few years, the education sector has become a key and hotly contested battleground for operating systems. As following what seemed to be a Windows-only scene for years, Apple started to make massive headway in this market and subsequently became one of the main contributors to education in terms of the number of devices shipped each quarter and year. While Windows managed to retain a dominant share at the desktop level, Apple’s iconic line of iPad tablets took on a life of their own. This was, of course, during the time when tablets overall were gaining momentum so it was to be expected they would do well due to their portability and app-based access. Though, Apple seemed to do even better than expected and at one point (October, 2013) had almost securely locked down the market, with Apple itself confirming it had by then occupied a 94-percent share of the education tablet segment.
Enter the Google Chromebook with its low-cost and lightweight approach. These Chrome OS-based devices had already started to make waves in the news by the time Apple announced its market-dominance and were available to buy, although the full impact of the Chromebook had yet to be felt by the industry with the platform starting fairly slowing but consistently in its level of adoption both at the consumer and education levels. Fast-forward one year, however, and by December 2014, reports started to come through based on figures including those from IDC suggesting Chromebooks - for the first time - had already taken over iPad sales in education. To be fair to the iPad, the headlines at the time were a little more glamorous than they should have been, as the figures were relative to the third-quarter of 2014 and showed Chromebook shipments totaling 715,000, compared to the 702,000 number for Apple’s iPad. While technically true that Chromebooks (based on those figures) had shipped in a greater number during the previous three months, it was probably more accurate to look at the two products as being on more of an equal footing than anything else - as the difference was a negligible one. Irrespective, it did clearly highlight that by the close of 2014 Google's Chromebook was starting to be noticed and had become a major player in the education sector.
The classroom today
This was only the start of what would become a much bigger change as Chromebooks for education have continued to slowly expand and gain adoption and not just in the US. Although in the US is where they are now seeing serious levels of growth compared to just a few years ago. As of March, 2018, for example, Futuresource notes how Chrome OS now holds “a majority share of the market” in the US drawing on data from 2017 to highlight the point. At the most recent quarter level, Futuresource points out Chrome OS accounted for “59.6-percent of devices shipped” and this is a number understood to be in line with the yearly outlook of “58.3-percent of devices shipped during 2017,” again according to Futuresource. To put this level of growth into perspective, Futuresource explains how this equates to an 87-percent share of the number of Chromebooks shipped globally to K-12 - kindergarten through to twelfth grade - schools. So while it is clear, Chromebooks are making their mark on the education sector, and in a number of countries, it is equally as clear the US is one of the places Chromebooks are really making their presence felt. And one that is clearly coming at the expense of Apple and its iPad line of products. What is interesting, though, is how Chromebooks only seem to be largely impacting Apple’s supply to education, as over the last year or two, Microsoft has also seen the number of shipped units for its educational products rising. The reason understood to be behind Microsoft's gains is how its latest products are almost purpose-designed to take on Chromebooks by offering the same sort of enclosed software solution, on hardware that is as competitively priced as Chromebooks. This two-pronged attack by low-priced but highly useful systems is thought to be directly contributing to year-over-year decline for the iPad within education. In other words, the price of the likes of Chrome OS and Windows-based solutions are increasingly appealing to educational institutions that are looking to keep costs as low as possible, while still managing to maintain an experience deserving of education.
Of course, one could argue that the form factor is also at play here. After all, tablets on a global level are, and have been, in decline for some time. So maybe the drop and turn away from the iPad form factor is more of a sign of the times? While this is in part true, it is obviously not the viewpoint from within the industry as Acer and Google have now announced a tablet running on Chrome OS. For the first time, Chrome OS is embarking on the very form factor many consider to be a dying breed and the reason being is tablets only seem to be declining in the consumer domain. Education by contrast, places high value on the tablet form factor as it is lightweight, kid-friendly, engaging, display-oriented, and also fairly low-demanding in terms of battery usage. Arguably, it is the lack of a tablet form that is now holding Chrome OS back, while also keeping Apple in the education race. Even Apple seems acutely aware of this as the company today announced a low-priced iPad starting at $299 for schools and $329 for consumers. This new iPad - as well as the event in general - was specifically aimed at the education sector and understood by many as Apple’s approach to taking on the increasing rise of Chromebooks - and to some degree, Windows-based solutions. Which makes the timing of Acer and Google’s latest tablet announcement so telling as it is not a coincidence that the first Chrome OS tablet was announced just 24 hours before Apple announced its latest strategy for dealing with Chromebooks, having even specifically mentioned Chrome OS devices during the event by claiming the new iPad is more powerful than "virtually" all Chromebooks. Google effectively wants the market to know that if the tablet form factor is what matters to an individual student, an education institution, or the education market in general, Chrome OS is there to help. What’s more, while the iPad and Apple products in general maintain an element of appeal in and of themselves, Google has a major advantage going forward - the overall ecosystem.
While the low price of hardware offered by Chromebooks is one of their major selling points, it is not actually the main selling point. For many institutions, it is likely to be the software ecosystem where the real added value of Chrome OS lies. As these devices are primed for easy deployment by IT management in education and once deployed are as easy to maintain, update, and keep secure. All aspects that are of direct value to education institutions. One way to understand the difference is how the low price was more of an initial motivator for education institutions to adopt the platform at scale. The software experience on the other hand, is, and likely will be, the reason those same education institutions stay on board with Chrome OS. Apple also knows this and this is why their event today was strictly education-focused, with the company looking to truly highlight that its new approach is not just about offering lower-priced hardware, but also a new software ecosystem to back up that hardware. It is designed to be a more complete and robust solution to take on the complete and robust solution already offered by Google. Which makes Apple’s task all that much harder as it will require institutions (and students) to once again migrate fully over from one ecosystem to another. In contrast to Chrome OS tablets which simply look to offer more product variation to an ecosystem that is according to all the latest figures, already dominant in the US. Not to mention, there should be little motivation for those institutions to adopt tablet-based Chrome OS devices as according to Google, that is the exact form factor they want Chrome OS available in.
The classroom in the future
The Acer Chromebook Tab 10 represents only what will be the first of many third-party-branded tablets running Chrome OS, so those buying for the education market will have the option of choice when it comes to design, brand name, and of course, price. Adding to its appeal, Google is more than aware that the learning experience in the classroom is changing rapidly due to technology and this is something that Chrome OS-based tablets are equally as designed to take advantage of. One of the best examples of this is augmented reality (AR). As AR is expected to become an essential tool in the classroom going forward and Google already has the software to accommodate the movement with the likes of its Expeditions AR program. This is a program almost exclusively developed to offer teachers the ability to transport students to different places (and times) to not just provide a better understanding of a topic being taught, but also a richer and more visually engaging learning experience.
The introduction of tablet devices is the missing puzzle piece here as while traditional Chromebooks (and especially the newer 2-in-1 variations) can accommodate newer technologies like AR, the tablet form can do so better, and in a way that is more in line with the advanced version of AR now becoming available on smartphones. The tablet form factor itself adds to the entire experience with a large enough screen, a more portable body, and cameras that can maximize the experience. Again, this is only one of the advantages of tablets, as with Chrome OS now supporting Android apps, the experience on a Chrome OS tablet will be far more akin to what many will already be familiar with through an Android tablet. As these new tablets essentially bring all of the familiarity of the previous generation of tablets to students along with all the new-age benefits of Chrome OS. Likewise, the Chromebook Tab 10 (and likely the Chrome OS tablets that will follow) supports and comes packaged with a stylus. So even in classes where a more creative touch is usually needed, Chrome OS tablets are going to be as useful as they would be in a history lesson. This is all before even touching on some of the other areas that also add value where Android tablets prove problematic - such as security. While Chromebooks are the education tool of now, it seems highly likely Chromebook tablets will be the education tool of the future.
While this has been a long time in the making, the announcement of the Acer Chromebook Tab 10 could prove to be a monumental milestone for Google. Likewise, it also seems to be the culmination of many loose threads over the past few years. While the writing had seemingly been on the wall for Android tablets in general, it was never clear how Google intended on changing the status quo. With this week’s announcement, however, Google’s intention is not only clear, but previous moves have seemingly been collectively gearing up to this moment. It is not a coincidence Google is making its move to Chrome OS tablets right now, nor an accidental one. Instead, it is far more likely that Google sees now as the optimal time to make this move. Google evidently sees Chrome OS has having now established itself firmly in the education sector enough to challenge the iPad form factor, and sees the opportunity of sliding iPad sales as an additional proof that the timing is right to strike. Even Apple’s announcement itself is likely to be taken by Google as further evidence of how the momentum is currently with Chrome OS and that its long-term strategy is working. When all of these points are taken together, it is clear there has never been a better time for Chrome OS to look to remove the iPad - and by association iOS - from the classroom, entirely.