The surprising iPad rival in education that isn’t a tablet, laptop or desktop

July 10, 2013

If you've been tracking education tablet deployments over the course of the last 12 months, you'll have seen that business is booming for vendors.

iPad roll-outs have varied from the hundreds to the thousands, with the L.A. school district recently agreeing to fork over $30 million to deploy 35,000 iPads.

There has also been a pick-up in demand for Windows 8 tablets, especially from Dell, and even News Corp's Amplify is having some early success, with it due to roll-out a massive 23,000 Android tablets to the North Carolina school district.

But in recent months, the iPad has found itself under threat in the classroom from a surprising new rival – Google’s Chromebook.

The search giant launched the web-based notebook form factor at its Google I/O developer conference in June 2011 and since then other Chromebook's have appeared from partners Acer, Samsung, HP and Lenovo.

Running Google’s Chrome OS, the Chromebook allows users access to web applications only and has been generally well-received, even if some reviewers have been quick to note its limitations.

“A Chromebook cannot do everything that a Windows PC or a Mac (of even a Linux PC) can do. It can’t even do everything that a tablet can do. For one thing, the selection of games is very limited though there is, of course, Angry Birds,” wrote seasoned tech journalist Steve Wildstrom recently for Tech-pinions.

“But it is very good at what it does well, and for a large number of people, it would be a more than adequate replacement for a conventional PC”.

(Image: A chart from Teachbytes compares Apple's iPad 2 and Samsung's Chromebook. Note: Apple has since added more apps to the App Store and the iPad 2 now starts from $399.)

But with prices sometimes as low as $99, schools have been quick to take to Chromebooks.

Indeed, such has been the thirst for these inexpensive web laptops that some schools haven’t decided on deploying the Chromebook or the iPad – they’ve deployed both.

A recent article from The Journal reveals that Spring Lake Public Schools in Michigan, Sioux Falls School District in South Dakota, Winnecombe Community School District in Wisconsin, and the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) — a non-profit organization that manages 25 Chicago Public Schools — have all implemented or plan to implement both iPads and Chromebooks in the classroom.

As the reporter details, it seems that the iPad is better suited for engaging younger children and on potentially tricky subjects like math, while the Chromebook is the go-to device for older students and especially for subjects like English.

"At the high school level, some of the implementation of Chromebooks has been in English classes, and they're producing a ton of work," said Scott Ely, curriculum director at Spring Lake Public Schools. "If the kids are doing a lot of writing, that's a good tool."

The keyboard and reliance on Google Apps has been embraced by numerous other schools, including St. Joseph's elementary school in Alameda, California.

"We have found Chromebooks to be the perfect tools – they’re portable and easy to use, have a keyboard and a large screen, and are secure," said Lisa DeLapo, the school's director of technology in a Google blogpost.

Futuresource education analyst Mike Fisher told TabTimes that schools have also been enticed by the Chromebook's super-fast boot time, the regular updates from Google, secure log-in (no data is left on the device) and simple class management (teachers are able to send apps out to groups).

The analyst adds that cost has also been key as the reliance on Google Apps, which are already popular in the classroom.

Another analyst, Carolina Milanesi from Gartner, believes that Chromebooks is just one part of Google’s education strategy, noting the company recently announced a Google Play store for K-12 schools.

“I do think that generally it is clear that Google is interested in the education segment not only with Chromebooks but with Android too given the recent launch of Google Play for education.

“I think Chromebooks will represent an interesting position for some schools given the different price points that you can reach. I would also say that for schools to go Chromebooks though might mean a wider commitment to Google from an app perspective or, at a minimum, a deeper commitment to developing apps.

“iPad might be a more off-the-shelf solution for some.”

And despite Apple’s historical and numerical advantage when it comes to putting devices in classrooms, this could just be the start of a battle between the two computing giants.

Apple is widely expected to introduce new tools for education and greater support for mobile device management (MDM) with iOS 7, while Google is expected to roll-out an increasing number of touchscreen Chromebooks (following the flagship Chromebook Pixel) later in the year.

Let the battle commence.

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