Is Microsoft losing the battle for the classroom?

If your current work makes you sit in front of a computer every day, there is a good chance that use Microsoft’s software such as Windows and Office to accomplish your work tasks. Microsoft clearly remains a productivity giant in 2016 and its software products are still ubiquitous in businesses.

However, the situation is clearly different in the education market where the Redmond giant is currently challenged by both Google and Apple. While Microsoft previously dismissed Google’s Chromebooks as poor laptops replacements in a series of video ads during the Ballmer era, the company can no longer deny that Google’s lightweight laptops are now quickly gaining ground in the classroom.

Fast Company published this week a lengthy story that explains how Google managed to make its Chromebooks the most popular laptops in U.S. schools. While the first Chromebook introduced back 2011 was nothing more than a glorified Chrome machine that couldn’t do more than just browsing the web (and was pretty useless without an Internet connection), Google successfully iterated on the product in the following years to include multi-user support, offline apps, and pretty soon, Android apps as well.

According to research firm Futuresource Consulting, Google today beats both Apple and Microsoft in U.S. education sales as it shipped more than 5 million devices to U.S. buyers in 2015, which is approximately twice the total of each of its rivals. Additionally, Chromebooks accounted for 51% of devices shipped to US classrooms in the first quarter of 2016 and overall we’re talking about a $43 billion worldwide market for educational hardware and software which is expected to double by 2020. As for users, Google already claims more than 60 million students and teachers using Google Education accounts, and all these users who are already familiar with Google’s productivity apps are likely to continue to use them in both their personal and professional lives in the future. Is this a threat for Microsoft’s productivity apps?

As for users, Google already claims more than 60 million students and teachers using Google Education accounts, and all these users who are already familiar with Google’s productivity apps are likely to continue to use them in both their personal and professional lives in the future. Is this a threat for Microsoft’s productivity apps?

US Students using Chromebooks.

US Students using Chromebooks.

How Google managed to win the education market

Google’s first move in the education market was Google Apps for Education, a free software suite that bundled Gmail, classroom-management tools, and more back in 2006. A few years later, the company tried an unconventional strategy to sell its first affordable Chromebooks to US schools: instead of trying to beat Apple and Microsoft at their own games (which implies lengthy negotiations at the district level and multimillion dollar contracts), the company directly pitched Chromebooks to schools and teachers and offered bundles including 30 Chromebooks plus a charging cart and a printer.

Rajen Sheth, director of product management for Android and Chrome in business and education explained to Fast Company:

…we found teachers who were able to secure budget and go and buy those for their classroom. Chromebooks were flying off the shelves.

It’s also easy to understand why schools like Chromebooks so much: Chrome OS is a very lightweight operating system that is versatile enough to provide students and teachers enough capabilities to accomplish their work. It’s also very secure and schools don’t need a lot of IT resources to manage the devices as well as the Google Education accounts. Nearly everything can be administrated remotely.

Google's Chromebook for Education website makes it clear that PCs are no longer the best option in education.

Google’s Chromebook for Education website makes it clear that PCs are no longer the best option in education.

Microsoft is trying to stay relevant

While Microsoft is still leading education sales outside of the U.S. today, the company is well aware of Google’s strong competition in the area. That’s why the company introduced Office 365 Education with a Classroom offering that pretty much covers the features of Google Apps for Education. But while there are already a decent selection of affordable Windows laptops in the market, Chromebooks are likely to keep an edge according to Adam Newman, founding partner at education advisory firm Tyton Partners: “There’s a complexity to what Microsoft is offering, and in a lot of places that complexity can be overwhelming,” he explained to Fast Company.

Microsoft also introduced Minecraft: Education earlier this year, which is a new version of the cult-classic sandbox game tailored for the classroom. The game is designed for helping students learn computational thinking and is now available on Windows PCs at a cost between $1 and $5 per student. Tony Prophet, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for education marketing said to Fast Company that the game has generated “huge excitement from educators around the world.” and that “there’s really nothing like it among our competitors.”

However, as Chromebooks are soon expected to support Android apps, it may soon become even harder for Windows laptops to compete in the education market. Getting millions of Android apps may also eventually help Chromebooks get out of the niche education market to become a more mainstream option with consumers.

Do you think Microsoft is doing the right things to stay relevant in the education market? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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Do you think Microsoft is doing the right thing to stay relevant in the education market?