Comparing Apple, Google and Microsoft’s education plays

Today’s Apple event in Chicago was about more than just showing off new hardware and software in the classroom — the company was reasserting itself as a major player in education. The category has long been a lynchpin in Apple’s strategy — something that Steve Jobs held near and dear.

Any ’80s kid will tell you that Apple was a force to be reckoned with — Apple computers were mainstays in computer labs across the country. It’s always been a good fit for a company focused on serving creators, bringing that extra bit of pizzazz to the classroom. In recent years, however, there’s been a major shift. The Chromebook has become the king of the classroom, thanks in no small part to the inexpensive hardware and limited spec requirements.

Based on Google’s early positioning of the category, it appears that the Chromebook’s classroom success even managed to catch its creators off-guard. The company has since happily embraced that success — while Microsoft appears to have shifted its own approach in response to Chrome OS’s success.

Apple’s own responses have been less direct, and today’s event was a reconfirmation of the company’s commitment to the iPad as the centerpiece of its educational play. If Apple can be seen as reacting, it’s in the price of the product. Gone are the days that schools’ entire digital strategy revolved around a bunch of stationary desktops in a dusty old computer lab.

But while education has been a piece of the iPad strategy since the product launched eight years ago next month, the tablet was long price-prohibitive. The company has addressed that through school discounts and lowering the overall cost of the line, as the tablet market has started to stagnate, but the last couple of upgrades have dropped pricing down to a far more approachable $299.

A one-iPad-per-child approach is still out of the realm of plenty of public schools, but it’s easy to see how the product could be appealing for school IT managers looking to roll out the iPad cart to classrooms. And additions like Managed Apple IDs have made it easier for multiple kids to share the same device, as a cost-cutting measure.

Along with devoted educational software, the company demonstrated how existing apps like Clips and Garage Band can be repurposed within the educational context to help bring a level of multimedia interactivity to the learning process. The company even sat us down in classrooms today to walk us through some of those projects.

Of course, right now, the market is Google’s to lose. The company reportedly controls around 60 percent of the market. Much like Android, the heart of Chrome OS’s approach is an embrace of third-party manufacturers, which have helped keep the cost down.

Schools with tight budgets can pick up a dirt-cheap Chromebook for $100-$150 less than an iPad. It’s easy to see how that’s an appealing proposition, especially when broken units are just par for the course in the hands of students.

In spite of its success, Google’s certainly not an island. Yesterday’s announcement of the first Chromebook tablet was both a response to Apple’s involvement in the space and a preemptive strike against today’s event, though the new Acer device is actually $30 more expensive than Apple’s educational discount. The company sort of shot itself in the foot on that one, but expect to see more competitively priced slates from other hardware partners.

Microsoft held its own education event in May of last year, showing off its solution to Chrome OS. Thus far, however, Windows 10 S has been kind of a mess, thanks in no small part to some pretty convoluted messaging on the company’s part. The company plans to streamline things a bit by making 10 S a mode inside of Windows 10.

The idea is basically the same, either way, offering a stripped-down version of the operating system that can be locked down from outside apps, so teachers can make sure nothing unseemly makes its way onto the device. It takes less of a toll on the hardware, with the company introducing a new line of PCs starting at $189 — a clear swipe at the Google’s dominance.

In fact, the company came out and said as much in the accompanying press material, saying the products were “the same price as Chromebooks, with none of the compromises.” And while Google’s online office applications have grown in popularity, Microsoft software is still nearly ubiquitous in offices, so there’s something to be said for prepping kids for the real world through use of such applications.