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Published in Print: November 12, 2014, as Chromebooks Ascend in K-12 Market to Challenge iPads

Chromebooks Gain in K-12 Market, Challenging iPads

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Two of the nation’s most recognizable technology companies are increasingly locked in a battle for supremacy in the education market—one that pits Google’s Chromebook laptops against Apple’s iPad tablets.

For the first time, K-12 shipments of Chromebooks equipped with Web-based operating systems surpassed iPads in the third quarter of 2014, which ended Sept. 30, according to International Data Corporation, a Framingham, Mass.-based company that provides market analysis. The research firm defines shipments as products that have been received by schools for use by students.

“If I had to pick two important devices that are really fighting with each other, I would pick Chromebooks and iPads,” said Rajani Singh, a senior research analyst at IDC who follows trends with personal computers and the program they use. During the third quarter of 2014, which includes the back-to-school season of July through September, Apple shipped 702,000 iPads compared to the 713,000 Chromebooks that other manufacturers shipped for K-12 education in the U.S., she said.

To some school officials, the battle among companies for market share is a positive development.

“Competition is extremely helpful with this industry,” said Sheryl R. Abshire, the chief technology officer for the 34,000-student Calcasieu Parish, La., district. Districts can “leverage competition,” she said, which helps school systems “do more with less” money.

Her district has a contract with Dell Inc., is currently running a Chromebook pilot project, and has continued to buy iPads as well.

A spokesman for Apple declined to comment on Chromebooks’ gains in K-12, or overall competition in the market. Apple has been dominant in the K-12 tablet market in recent years, controlling an estimated 94 percent of the market last year at this time. But that number had slipped to 85 percent in the third quarter of this year, IDC reported.

Microsoft Windows-based operating system devices also have been affected by Chromebooks’ popularity. In the third quarter, shipment of devices loaded with Microsoft’s Windows dropped to a 51 percent market share this year from a 63 percent market share in 2013, Ms. Singh said.

More to Come?

Competition among makers of devices in the K-12 market is likely to grow in the years ahead, said Michael J. Fisher, associate director of the education division of Futuresource Consulting Ltd., a U.K.-based research and forecasting business.

Chromebook screens glow in a 6th grade English class at Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg, Md.
Chromebook screens glow in a 6th grade English class at Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg, Md.
—T.J. Kirkpatrick for Education Week

Android tablets loaded with Google Play for Education are entering the market, he noted. Cost-competitive Windows devices are being released. And more manufacturers like Lenovo, Asus, and Acer are launching convertible devices that can operate as laptops, or as touch-screen tablets when detached from the keyboard.

At the same, districts are becoming more discerning buyers, choosing from a variety of devices with an eye toward which tools will help them meet specific instructional goals, rather than just going with the first impressive-looking device they come across, said Leslie Fiering, research vice president at Gartner Inc., a research and advisory company based in Stamford, Conn.

“I don’t think [districts are] going from fad to fad to fad,” she said.

Districts considering whether to purchase Chromebooks today are likely to weigh a variety of factors, including whether they have existing contracts with manufacturers.

The Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis recently chose Lenovo X131 Chromebooks over those offered by HP, and Dell, said Peter A. Just, the chief technology officer for the 16,000-student district. The decisionmakers liked the rubber-bumper that lines the outside of the Lenovo device’s case, and the overall durability of the Chromebook.

Shifting Priorities

While the “price point is always a consideration,” Mr. Just said, durability and functionality were more important factors. The price of iPads prevented the district from considering them, he added: the Apple devices are like “state-of-the-art Cadillacs,” and “we can’t afford to buy a Cadillac at this stage of the game.”

IPads’ prices in the consumer market vary from about $250 to $830 per unit, depending on the features included, according to Apple. School prices generally vary by model and features, as well as by discounts available within the education market, the company said.

Chromebooks generally sell to schools for between $200 and $399 per device. Futuresource reports that most schools expect to pay under $300 for a Chromebook, excluding the cost of the management license, though some schools are willing to pay a higher price for features like more processing power, and full, high-definition displays.

Apple had an early advantage with iPads because the devices were introduced as districts’ interest in 1-to-1 initiatives and other ambitious technology efforts were surging, said Ms. Fiering, of Gartner.

Now, the demands of districts appear to be changing again. K-12 systems used to favor a “one device” approach because they thought it would bring economies of scale in purchasing and support for the technology, and would be popular with teachers and students, Ms. Fiering said. But now district leaders tend to favor devices suited to “grade bands,” or different age groups.

Once dismissive of Chromebooks’ capabilities, Ms. Abshire said she is vetting those tools by piloting them in her district, and by collecting information from peers around the country. So far, she is favorably impressed.

“We’re still buying iPads for diversity, [and searching for] different technology for different purposes,” she said. “New choices must be careful choices. You have to be thoughtful.”

Vol. 34, Issue 12, Pages 10-11

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