Apple, Windows, Google Compete in LA and Education Sector

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) efforts to grow its presence in America’s schools and classrooms was just dealt a major blow. After last year awarding Apple a large contract to provide iPads to students at the districts’ schools, the Los Angeles school district is looking at alternatives to the premium tablets by evaluating a variety of laptops, including offerings by Microsoft  (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL).

The Los Angeles Times reports that the nation’s second largest school district has allowed a group of 27 high schools to choose among six different laptops and hybrid computers to provide to their students. Schools have already chosen which laptops they’d like to use, and this fall, students, teachers, and administrators will test the different models to determine which ones will figure into the district’s expanding effort to provide computers for all students in the district.

The news marks a big shift away from the school district’s decision last year to give every student an iPad. At the time — and without much input from schools — the district authorized a $30 million contract with Apple, which was expected to expand to at least $500 million, and committed another $500 million to upgrading schools’ internet connectivity. After a troubled rollout, this year’s plans contrast markedly with last year’s, and not one of the six computers that schools will choose among is an Apple product. The challenging rollout of iPads at 47 schools saw students circumventing firewalls to visit social media sites, some schools recalling the iPads, distribution falling behind schedule, the district licensing incomplete curricula, and district-wide distribution eventually being suspended.

School board member Steve Zimmer acknowledged the mistakes made after the district forewent extensive discussion to roll out a single device. “We had the right urgency, but urgency can be the enemy of necessary scrutiny. Now our challenge is to main the urgency while getting the details right.” District-wide distribution of the iPads is on hold, though some schools are still scheduled to receive them in the fall. New curricula to accompany the laptops will also be tested, and offerings by Pearson (NYSE:PSO), McGraw Hill (NYSE:MHFI)/Study Sync, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (NASDAQ:HMHC) will be evaluated.

Students and teachers have already met vendors at the school district’s headquarters to assess the laptop and curriculum options. Among the models that school administrators could choose from are the Lenovo (LNVGY.PK) Yoga Touch, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2, the Dell Latitude E7240, and two Chromebook models. (It’s not clear what the sixth choice is.) The deadline to select a computer was Friday, and final prices were being negotiated last week. The Windows laptops are expected to be more expensive than the iPad, while the Chromebooks will likely cost less.

In contrast to the iPad’s status as a tablet, and its correspondingly limited functionality, some of the computers offered are hybrid models that combine features of tablets with those of traditional laptops. The switch to laptops, rather than tablets, follows complaints by teachers that the iPad didn’t meet students’ needs. They cited the lack of a physical keyboard and the small screen size as especially insufficient when used for standardized tests.

Initial funding for the project comes from voter-approved bonds, but it’s unclear where the district will find future funding to sustain the $1 billion initiative. Since Apple is still scheduled to deliver a shipment of iPads to the district this fall, it’s also unclear if any of that funding will go to Apple products — perhaps for lower grades. AppleInsider reports that the contract with Apple has been criticized due to the fact that it’s run far over budget because of confusion over the bulk discount that the company offered. The school district will only be eligible for bulk discounts after it purchases $400 million of iPads, approximately 520,000 units.

However, a statement made by school board member Monica Ratliff makes it clear that the district isn’t looking to replace the iPad with one, single solution. “Why would we treat all our students — whether they are a first-grader or a high school freshman — as if they all had the same technology needs? They don’t … To have a one-device-fits-all approach does not make sense.” The fact that the iPad isn’t on the list of choices for high schools doesn’t necessarily rule it out as a possible choice for elementary schools or middle schools in the future.

Apple devices have traditionally been the technology of choice for educational uses, and the iPad itself has been deployed as a relatively economical solution for one-to-one programs to equip every student with a tablet. Information Week reports that last year, iPads controlled 94 percent of the educational market for tablets. But as the changes in Los Angeles exemplify, schools are starting to shift away from tablets to deploy more capable laptops, and Apple could lose out because it doesn’t offer a large range of laptops, or a lower-end choice.

Windows laptops — both manufactured by Microsoft and by other makers — are a logical option for school districts to investigate, as are Google’s Chromebooks, which offer the benefit of storing all of students’ work and information on servers, not on local hardware. Hybrids running Windows 8 are especially attractive options among Microsoft’s offerings, and Information Week reports that the Pasadena Independent School District will issue 12,900 of Dell’s Venue 11 Pro 2-in-1 tablets. Baltimore Country Public Schools will deploy 150,000 HP Elitebook 810 Revolve devices, and Fresno Unified School District will issue 15,000 ASUS Transformer T1000 devices. Houston Independent School District and Miami Dade County Public Schools will also provide students with tens of thousands of Windows 8.1 devices.

At the same time, Apple is adding more educational content and services, and winning contracts with new school districts — the market is just getting more competitive as a wider variety of options, like the relatively new but extremely affordable Chromebooks, become available. 

Even though the cost of the current initiative, to provide laptops to 27 high schools, is not to exceed $40 million, the school district still needs to prove the educational value of such the expensive investment to skeptical parents and taxpayers. Ratliff’s comment — that a one-device program just doesn’t make sense for such a wide variety of schools and students — seems spot on. As Los Angeles and other school districts determine which devices meet their needs, it places more pressure on Apple, Microsoft, and Google to create better products and services — or at least marketing — to appeal to buyers in the growing education sector.

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