How Google overtook Apple in education

Apple's longtime lock on the education market began to fall apart when Google first introduced Chromebooks more than five years ago. Here's how Google swept in and started to push Apple out.

education primary
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Apple's Mac and Apple II computers have been used in classrooms for more than 30 years, but cheaper hardware from rival Google is putting the squeeze on Apple's dominant position in education. The two companies target education from very different perspectives that play to their respective strengths. Google's objective is also slightly different than Apple's, because it primarily focuses on selling hardware for students that promotes its software services, while Apple pursues a more hardware-specific approach along with tools for teachers, according to a set of analysts who follow the education tech market.

"The momentum is definitely swinging in Google's favor," says Van Baker, research vice president, Gartner. "Chromebooks are doing quite well in the education sector." 

Apple and Google in education, by the numbers

Computing device shipments to K-12 classrooms in the United States reached 10.9 million units during 2015, according to research firm IDC, a CIO.com sister company. Android and Chrome devices from Google accounted for roughly 5.5 million units shipped to schools, while macOS and iOS devices from Apple accounted for 2.9 million units, according to Linn Huang, research director at IDC. The 5.5 million units Google shipped to classrooms in 2015 included roughly 5.26 million Chrome OS devices (mostly Chromebooks) and about 256,000 Android devices, according to IDC. Apple shipped about 2.1 million iOS devices (mostly iPads) and roughly 806,000 Macs to U.S. classrooms during the same year, Huang says. 

[Related: With Watson Element, Apple and IBM aim to transform education]

The devices that most frequently make their ways into K-12 classrooms — primarily Chromebooks from Google and iPads from Apple — highlight the biggest difference between each company's approach to education, Baker says.

"Apple's focus is by necessity almost all on hardware, whereas Google's is much more a mix of hardware and services," says Jan Dawson, chief analyst and founder of tech research firm Jackdaw. "Google's apps have quickly become a standard for classroom collaboration, and many schools also use Google-based email services for students." 

Apple wouldn't specify just how many students use its devices but says it defines success based on quality not quantity. The company also says more than 170,000 iOS and Mac apps designed specifically for education are available today, and more than a billion educational courses and collections have been downloaded from iTunes U, Apple's store for educators to distribute and manage educational resources.

As of last month, at least 20 million students used Chromebooks globally, according to Google. The company doesn't release sales figures, but a spokesperson said more than 15 million devices have been sold to education institutions around the world to date. Google also says more than 60 million students, teachers and administrators use its G Suite for Education apps worldwide. 

iPads are pricey, Chromebooks affordable and familiar

Apple's biggest challenge in the education market is that it doesn't have a low-cost PC, according to Dawson. "[I]t's using the iPad to try to fill that slot," he says. "For many tasks, that's a totally appropriate substitute, but for others it likely isn't — most students aren't going to learn to touch type on an iPad, for example."

Google's challenge is the opposite, according to Dawson; Chromebooks are a worthy alternative to Macs in the classroom, but Google can't fill other hardware needs as easily. 

Apple had "free reign" in the education market for decades, and Google only recently started to take the segment seriously, Baker says. "It absolutely boils down to price in many instances because, let's face it, school districts are always strapped for money," he says. "If [schools] can get a Chromebook for a couple hundred books, and it's up against an iPad that doesn't even have a keyboard and it costs $500, that makes a difference for a lot of these guys."

Chromebooks are also more familiar to schools that already have desktop computers, according to Baker. "In many ways the Chromebook is just an alternative to the PC," he says. "It's kind of the path of less resistance."

[Related: Google rebrands cloud services ‘Google Cloud' and ‘G Suite']

Google is also banking on its services that are already common, according to Dawson. The combination of low-cost hardware and familiar services, such as Gmail and Google Docs, is a major strength for the company, he says. "Even though Apple discounts its hardware for the education market, it's still premium hardware."

For Apple and Google, different objectives in education

For both companies, tackling the education market is ultimately about two objectives, according to Dawson: sales and customer loyalty. "The direct objective is to sell more stuff, while the indirect one is about teaching the next generation of buyers to use and prefer their hardware, software and services," he says. "If you hook someone on your stuff in elementary school, you may well have hooked them for life."

Baker sees the landscape somewhat differently. Google is focused on getting as many Chromebooks into classrooms as it can, he says, while Apple pursues a more complete offering with services and tools for teachers in addition to students. "The Apple offering is a bit more comprehensive and curriculum-centric than the Google offering, but Google has the platform so it's allowing them to definitely make some inroads."

This story, "How Google overtook Apple in education" was originally published by CIO.

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