A girl views a new iPad tablet computer at an Apple store during its UK launch in central London
Apple used to dominate the K-12 education market. Generations of kids were raised on its tech. Chromebooks now fill the void for several reasons, columnist Michael Gartenberg says.By missing out on schools, Apple is losing the unique relationship it once had with students.
Long before music was part of Apple’s DNA and computers were something to be strapped to one’s face, Apple was the de facto standard for K-12 education. An entire generation grew up trying to get through the “Oregon Trail” series or learning to type with the help of Mavis Beacon. Today, Apple logos shine brightly in universities around the world but it’s all but gone from K-12 classrooms.
Apple’s share of the K-12 education market has been under siege since at least 2017, when low-cost Windows computers and Google’s affordable Chromebooks with its suite of cloud apps, began to own the market. These days, Chromebooks dominate in schools, according to market-research firm Canalys.
I talked to several school principals and superintendents who told me that Google’s support for collaboration and Chromebooks’ multiuser capabilities make it the clear choice for institutions that are already under budget constraints.
Why the iPad isn’t winning with K-12 schools
Apple once worked hard to position the iPad as its offering for education. (Remember the 2017 “What’s a computer?” commercial where a school-aged kid spends the day, including doing homework, on the iPad? Or the “Your next computer is not a computer” ad where two high schoolers use their iPads to compete for class president?)
But as one principal of a relatively affluent private school pointed out to me, the cost of an iPad — along with a Magic Keyboard (cover folio keyboards did not meet their needs), plus an Apple pencil — was the equivalent of at least three comparable Chromebooks that could be used by more than one student. Chromebooks are also much easier to repair or replace and log back in. There’s no need for the complex restore process that Apple uses, particularly for iOS devices.
One of Apple’s biggest pushes to make the iPad the standard device used in K-12 schools was back in 2013 when the Los Angeles school system signed a contract to purchase $1 billion worth of devices. I worked at Apple at the time, and that contract was viewed as a huge win and was expected to be the first of many deals that would propel iPads into classrooms across the country. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite turn out that way.
The initial $30 million contract was expected to expand to about $500 million as the project rolled out over the following year. An additional $500 million was to be used to expand internet access and other infrastructure issues at schools. Costs rose quickly as the need for peripherals such as keyboards became apparent, and critics noted that the iPad model the district agreed to buy was already superseded by newer, more capable devices sold at retail stores.
That LA contract is something that Apple never talks about anymore and shows that even if iPads were appropriate for this market, Apple might not be equipped with the proper sales and support teams to deliver large-scale projects. Lately, the schools and districts I’ve seen using iPads as part of their curriculum are mostly small-scale projects or grassroots organizations.
Apple’s website targets its back-to-school message to college students, not the K-12 crowd.
Why schools love Google Chromebooks
Apple’s somewhat confusing product line is part of the problem. Is the iPad really a computer suited for productivity, as Apple often claims? Or do the iMac and MacBook belong in the classroom? These are questions Apple hasn’t successfully answered at the basic consumer level, even at a time when both Mac and iPad sales are declining.
Schools are looking for devices and services that are low-cost, specifically designed for education, support premium features such as pens, are well-constructed, and have a long battery life. They’re not looking at $3,400 spatial-computing devices. (When I mentioned Apple’s new virtual reality Vision Pro device to one teacher, she said they need devices that will help kids with science projects, not buy science projects from Apple.)
Chromebooks’ affordability, classroom-specific features, and compatibility with Google’s suite of educational tools make them an ideal choice for institutions looking for a device that can meet the specific needs of the classroom.
But maybe more importantly, Google now owns the K-12 market because Apple appears to be uninterested in it. It’s back-to-school season now and Apple’s homepage has the message “Save on Mac or iPad for College” splashed across it.
Economics aside — although there’s quite a lot of money to be made in this area — the unique relationship Apple once had with students went beyond the cost of the devices in the school. The Apple II wasn’t just the classroom computer, it was also the home computer. The Mac was the PC kids took with them to college and later to the business world. The individual relationship Apple had with students from the time they were old enough to use a computer created brand loyalty from day one, which created customers for life.
As the education market evolves, I expect Chromebooks will continue to command an outsize market share and become even more widely adopted by schools and districts. They aren’t as flashy as the latest devices from Cupertino, but in the case of the classroom at least, utility beats cachet. These days, the Apple on a teacher’s desk is more likely to be a piece of fruit sitting next to a Chromebook.
Michael Gartenberg is a former senior marketing executive at Apple and has covered the company for more than two decades as a market-research analyst at Gartner, Jupiter Research, and Altimeter Group. He is also an Apple shareholder. He can be reached on Twitter at @Gartenberg.