Battle for Whiteboard-Market Supremacy Heats Up
Competition gets intense as companies move to differentiate themselves from the pack and adjust to technological changes
The battle for supremacy in the K-12 whiteboard market is heating up. Companies are scrambling for new sources of revenue, making strategic moves to reinvent their products in the age of tablet computing, and sizing up their competitors to see what they can do to differentiate themselves from the pack.
Who ultimately ends up on top has huge implications for educational technology leaders, who must determine which company is the best fit for their needs, and at a cost their districts can afford in still-difficult budget times. Complicating those decisions are changes in the technological landscape that are raising questions about the long-term educational relevance of interactive whiteboards. Do classrooms really need them in the age of iPads?
Executives at the leading whiteboard manufacturers insist that while the demands of their customers are shifting—from the whiteboard as a front-and-center tool to a piece of the digital class—there is still plenty of room to grow their customer base.
They point to the United States, the rest of the Americas, the Middle East, and the Far East as fertile ground for business, given that all those regions of the world have lagged behind Western Europe, and especially the United Kingdom, in whiteboard adoption.
"There's still a place for the main focus of the class to be on a shared screen, whether that's an IWB [interactive whiteboard], an interactive monitor, or whatever," says Danny Nicholson, the author of The Whiteboard Blog, in an email.
But other analysts say a more radical reinvention will be needed. Otherwise, they say, the market for whiteboards may have peaked. They point domestically to the extinction of a steady funding stream to drive purchases, including the end of the infusion of money from the federal economic-stimulus program. There are parallels across the globe and even in Britain, where Becta, the nation's educational technology agency, died amid budget cuts in 2011, though it's too early to tell the exact extent of the effect on the whiteboard market.
As interactive whiteboards have become more commonplace in the classroom, their manufacturers have evolved from simply competing for new customers to carving out a brand niche and identity within a more crowded marketplace.
Education Week Digital Directions examines some of the major manufacturers and their perceived identity within the whiteboard world, with insight from Pegeen Wright, the author of "K-12 Publisher's Guide to Interactive Whiteboards—2009" and an educational technology consultant based in Belmont, Mass.
SMART Technologies introduced its first SMART Board in 1991 and has since been known by most industry observers as the single biggest force in the whiteboard industry. Despite a rise in the number of competing vendors in recent years, that reputation hasn't eroded much, Wright says, especially because early-adopting schools are likely to continue with the same vendor because of the ease of sharing software.
"It's sturdy, holds up well, and has lots of software," Wright says. "It's almost like buying the Honda in the old days. People say, 'You can't go wrong on the SMART Board.' "
While Wright estimates that SMART may have 65 percent to 75 percent of the U.S. educational market for interactive boards, Promethean may lead the way when it comes to being seen as forward-thinking and pushing the whole-system approach to complement its ActivBoards. And that's becoming increasingly important as educators aim to blend whiteboards with other, more personal technologies and a range of software for both.
"They're seen as very innovative, and they have some great software with some very interesting features," Wright says. "Again, if Promethean is going into the school, chances are they would try to stick to that across the board."
Much like its competitors, eInstruction offers a range of products through its Interwrite line, from interactive whiteboards to tablets to remote-response clickers, indicative of a marketplace in which companies are quick to offer alternatives to a new product any vendor creates, says Wright.
PolyVision has grown as a whiteboard supplier during the past three or four years, in part because of customers' ability to identify with two key components of its brand: a "forever" warranty on all its ceramic-steel writing surfaces, and its production of the industry's only board that requires no cables, cords, or wires, as part of the eno Series Interactive Whiteboards. "That's really appealing to some schools," Wright says.
Marketed as a flexible and economical alternative, the Mimio Interactive product is actually a Velcro strip capable of attaching to a dry-erase board and giving it the touch-screen qualities of an interactive whiteboard. The manufacturer also makes Mimio-Boards, a more traditional interactive whiteboard. "It's portable, low-cost, and the software is pretty good," Wright says of Mimio Interactive. It's a good fit for "schools that really want to get into whiteboards and don't have the money to purchase the bigger solution."
And consumers may see the technology as having lost the fad factor to iPads and other tablet computers that allow a more personal experience. Those products, as they become more affordable, can be attractive for classrooms that take a bring-your-own-device approach.
"It's hard to say," Mike Lawrence, the executive director of Computer-Using Educators, an advocacy group in Walnut Creek, Calif., remarks about the direction of the whiteboard industry. "Most of the tech-savvy educators I've been talking to are looking at solutions other than interactive whiteboards."
The Digital 'Ecosystem'
Whiteboard makers say they aren't trying to keep tablets, smartphones, and other personal technologies out of the classroom, and generally agree that product reinvention is critical for their companies' bottom lines.
But they also contend that the interactive whiteboard is still an important central display tool in a truly digital classroom, and they remain bullish on the willingness of more schools to shell out the money to install them in the future.
"The interactive whiteboard is part of that ecosystem," says Bob Crain, the general manager at PolyVision, a Suwanee, Ga.-based whiteboard manufacturer. "Like any other ecosystem, if you pull out a key element, the rest of the ecosystem starts collapsing on itself."
Crain estimates that 80 percent to 95 percent of classrooms worldwide are still without whiteboards, meaning that, theoretically, there should still be plenty of potential future buyers as education becomes increasingly digital.
Worldwide or even national statistics on whiteboard penetration in classrooms are difficult to gather, but one survey of about 1,400 full-time teachers in the United States found that 59 percent of respondents said whiteboards were available in their schools, with 36 percent saying they had access in their own classrooms. Saturation in the United Kingdom is far higher, with the government having directed funding for whiteboard purchases at virtually every public school and in most classrooms during the past decade.
But even if many classrooms are still without a whiteboard, a lean economy means a tougher sell for a technology that can cost thousands of dollars per unit, says Nancy Knowlton, the president and chief executive officer at SMART Technologies, the Calgary, Alberta-based manufacturer still viewed as the biggest force in the whiteboard marketplace.
And customers are more often now looking at the technology as a piece of a digital classroom, rather than the main procurement, meaning whiteboard manufacturers sometimes have to fight for dollars from districts' dwindling technology budgets against more kinds of competitors.
All that considered, Knowlton says, companies are still making sales, especially if they can provide educators with a suite of services, accessories, and software beyond the board itself.
"Education still has the business of teaching and learning to undertake, and they're still making expenditures," says Knowlton, whose company's education offerings include interactive whiteboards, software and accessories, student-response systems, and classroom-management software.
"Creating that winning pipeline of products is always challenging," she acknowledges. "If you think what you've got today is good enough for tomorrow, I think that's a prescription for a slow and painful death."
At Alpharetta, Ga.-based Promethean, generally considered the industry's second-leading manufacturer by volume, the president of North American markets, Jim Marshall, says an array of new offerings will help the company thrive in the new marketplace.
Those include the launch of the company's new Web-based data-management system, ActivProgress; the announcement of a partnership with the school broadcaster Channel One to create an interactive version of its content delivered by Promethean's ActivBoards; and the pilot of the Power of U adaptive math program that appears to be modeled at least partly on New York City's School of One, but using only Promethean hardware and partner McGraw-Hill's content.
"Connecting the front of the class to the back of the class is what we're going for," Marshall says. "We have a number of the central ingredients, but assembling the piece parts and putting the efforts around the integration, ... it's moving at the same time you're chasing it."
Nicholson, the whiteboard blogger, and other analysts agree that Promethean and other manufacturers have taken steps to offer consumers the "whole solution," not just a classroom centerpiece. But several analysts doubt whether those companies can corner the market on the suite of tools that gives rise to the fully interactive classroom.
For example, Nicholson and others see the iPad and other tablets threatening whiteboard manufacturers' student-response systems, since tablets can easily serve the same functions while also enabling use of the Web and word processing.
Meanwhile, Pegeen Wright, who heads an educational technology consulting firm in Belmont, Mass., says that industry competitors are becoming so sophisticated and mature that it's harder for manufacturers to differentiate themselves, at least in the capabilities of the tools they offer.
"Because it's become a commodity, one person is going to come out with something, and then everyone is going to come out with that [equivalent] in the coming year," Wright says of interactive-whiteboard manufacturers, whom she wrote about in a guide published in 2009. "And there are other technologies that are coming out all the time."
Still, that doesn't mean the influence of other emerging technologies is all bad for whiteboard makers, says Lawrence of Computer-Using Educators.
For one thing, the popularity of iPads has pushed some whiteboard consumers to buy tablets made by whiteboard manufacturers from which they can manipulate the screen while roaming around the classroom, Lawrence says. Further, he says that from a business perspective, just because whiteboards may no longer be viewed as the most innovative classroom technology, that doesn't necessarily mean they're a less profitable venture.
"I think that it's because there's enough of a profit margin that other companies are [getting involved]," says Lawrence, pointing to emerging companies like PolyVision, eInstruction, and Mimio, which he says have all found success despite the presence of the "Big Two," SMART and Promethean, and despite the fact that most learning software works only on one manufacturer's boards.
"They're saying, 'Gosh, these two companies are really dominating this market. There's got to be some room for innovation that would make for a third player.' "
Wright says she is more skeptical. She suggests that the demand for interactive whiteboards has possibly peaked and will begin to wane, eventually resulting in fewer options for the consumer. And while she agrees with manufacturers that the whiteboard can still be an important digital centerpiece of a classroom, she says some manufacturers' business expectations may have been artificially inflated through purchases driven by time-limited federal stimulus funding during the past few years.
"What I don't see right now is another revenue source like that coming along that is really going to boost sales," Wright says. "I'm not sure who can keep buying whiteboards, and how many might buy the tablets and some of the other things coming along. … I just don't see the funding."
Nicholson of The Whiteboard Blog says the situation could change if whiteboards are able to complete a reinvention as a hub of classroom commerce. He envisions a teacher using the screen to scroll to and display the work of any student on any device in the classroom, either in a single-picture format or in a split screen similar to some computer-based classroom-management systems. The teacher might also be able to take a demonstration from a whiteboard and route information to a student's tablet, laptop, or smartphone.
Then there's the possibility that, for example, the Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp. could find a way to make its PowerPoint software adaptable to whiteboards.
"To make it essentially IWB software would stop teachers' being tied in to only one brand of board," Nicholson says of such a move.
Vol. 05, Issue 02, Pages 31, 33-34Published in Print: February 8, 2012, as Whiteboard Wars
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