Apple’s next splashy product announcement won’t be from its new campus in Cupertino, Calif. It will take place at a magnet high school on the North Side of Chicago — a signal that Apple isn’t ready to let go of the education market it once dominated.
Apple has not said what products will be introduced at its event, but the announcement comes at a crucial time: as many schools are looking to renew or change over the summer their agreements with companies for classroom tech. Tech companies hope that the presence of their products in classrooms will turn students into long-term customers.
Macs — and later, iPads — were once synonymous with classroom tech, but over the past several years Google and Microsoft have overtaken Apple. Google is the undisputed king in classrooms, thanks to an aggressive push to give students low-cost laptops — deals it sweetened with free software and cheap rates to help districts manage the thousands of new devices. Near the end of 2017, Google had shipped about 60 percent of the new technology that U.S. classrooms received, according to the analysis firm FutureSource. Microsoft has also seen a gain, shipping roughly 22 percent of technology to schools. Apple, meanwhile, has been slipping — with iOS making up 12.3 percent of new tech shipping to classrooms and MacOS at 4.7 percent.
Google's lead will be hard to shake, given how well it has sold its systems to schools and how accustomed the schools have become to Google products, said Mike Fisher, associate director at Futuresource Consulting. Many school districts favor a mix of products, using iPads with younger students and switching to Chromebooks or cheaper Windows laptops as students age and require more computing power or a full keyboard.
That leaves it to Apple to make a compelling case next week. The company has never pulled away from education, but it hasn't been as aggressive, analysts said; for example, the last education-focused event it held was in 2012, when it introduced iBooks. Next week Apple is expected to announce lower-cost iPads. Fisher said he thinks Apple will also offer a substantial revamp of its classroom software and focus on its augmented reality capabilities.
A low-cost laptop, which has also been rumored, would be a tough sell for Apple — even if it slashed the price significantly. Chromebooks and Windows PCs aimed at schools cost about $300 per student, Fisher said. That's about the same education pricing for an iPad. Apple makes its money selling hardware and software as a package, unlike Google, which makes a small amount licensing the Chromebooks and also gets subscription fees for management software. Microsoft deeply discounts devices — tablets start at $189 — and sells software to schools.
Apple didn't respond to a request for comment on the coming announcement.
The company is also expected to revamp its Classroom application, which allows teachers to personalize lesson plans, communicate with parents and closely track student performance.
Education is an important market for tech firms, even though companies don’t make a significant amount of money from school contracts, compared with iPhone sales and Google advertising sales, said analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights. With discounted devices and low-cost or even free software, even large contracts aren't comparative moneymakers. The appeal of education tech, then, comes in establishing preferences.
Getting young people to like a brand is even more significant in a connected world, where it's easier to use particular programs across platforms. A preference for Microsoft Word, for example, is no longer limited by a device. The same is true for Google's suite of apps.
Increasingly, as in the consumer world, tech companies are pitching schools a whole ecosystem of software, hardware and even lesson plans. Apple announced in January, for example, that it will expand its Swift coding curriculum for iOS to serve every student in the Chicago public school system.
The school where Apple will hold its event next week, Lane Tech College Prep, was featured in Apple's release detailing its coding curriculum program. The event is to begin at 11 a.m. Eastern time on March 27.