Kids learning to code on iPads

Lost amidst the red iPhone and death of iPad Air hoopla was Apple’s latest attempt to turnaround its education market:

A $299 iPad.

Apple didn’t lead with that news and the pricing for the new 9.7 iPad flagship is only for education institutions, but make no mistake, it’s a critical strategic move and one that could help revive the company’s tablet business.

It’s been decades since Apple and Steve Jobs helped drive through state legislation that put Apple computers in every California classroom and helped trigger much wider adoption of the Apple in grade schools across the country.

In recent years, it’s been almost all Windows and Chromebooks with Apple, according to the research firm Futuresource, struggling to hold onto 20% (across Mac and iOS). The firm puts Chromebook penetration at a whopping 58% in U.S. schools (two years ago, it was at 38%). Apple’s share has been dropping steadily in the last few years. In the U.S. Macs now sits at 5% and iOS tumbled from 26% in 2014 to 14% in 2016. Globally, iOS has held steady at 9%.

It’s not hard to see why. Chromebooks are incredibly cheap laptops ($299 is the norm) and they come hard-wired to Google’s cloud-based offerings, including the Google Docs document creation, collaboration and management suite. Most teenagers I know literally grew up using these systems. Even if they’re not using Chromebooks, they’re all still using Google’s cloud-based suite.

“Chromebooks are doing well in US education because the systems and services are inexpensive and easy to manage,” said Patrick Moorhead, Principal Analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy.

Apple has never backed away from the education market. The iPad was an early hit with schools, with some ordering thousands in the year after it launched. A few years later, as the Chromebook revolution took hold, schools started replacing students’ iPads. In addition to the cost, there was the fact that the iPad didn’t have a keyboard. Kids in school are still writing, a lot, and a touch screen and virtual keyboard was only going to get them so far.

That realization may have stung Apple more than people realized.

When Apple announced on Tuesday that the new 9.7-inch iPad (basically the iPad Air with a better processor and screen) would cost education institutions $299, I thought, “that’s interesting.” Then they told me about the partnership with Logitech and the new $99.95 Logitech Combo case and Keyboard. A custom-built device designed to turn the new iPad into a true ultra-portable.

Check it out. With the kickstand, it looks a little like a Microsoft Surface:

The $99.95 Logitech Rugged Combo, Case and Add-On Keyboard for the 9.7-inch iPad.

I’m sure that’s coincidental, but the intention here is clear: Show that the iPad can be just as functional in the classroom as a Chromebook, all it needs is this add-on.

It’s kind of a shame that Apple has to try so hard here. The iPad has always been a powerful computer, certainly more powerful than most Chromebooks that rely so heavily on the cloud and cloud-based apps for functionality.

When I met with Apple this week to talk about its newest products, they helpfully reminded me that there are more than 180,000 educational apps written exclusively for the iPad. Some of them do things we couldn’t imagine doing in the heyday of the classroom PC:

  • Playground Physics lets you mark-up photos and videos and generate live equations.

  • My Script MathPad lets you use your fingers to scribble barely legible math equations that the app turns into live, functioning ones with accurate results.

  • Endless Reader, a tuneful, Sesame Street-inspired app turns letters into talking characters that you can drag on the screen to spell simple words.

  • And, of course, there’s Swift Playgrounds, Apple’s iPad-based platform designed to teach school-age kids coding through cute characters and simple puzzle-likes games.

Image: Endless Reader

Endless Reader

Image: Playground Physics

Playground Physics

Two years ago, when I sat in on an Hour of Code event with a room-full of grade-school kids who’d been supplied with iPad mini’s pre-loaded with the Swift Playgrounds, Apple CEO Tim Cook, who paid a surprised visit, told me about Apple’s ongoing efforts to get iPads into the hands of underprivileged schools and children.

“We selected 120 schools around the U.S. that are the most-needy schools. The bar that we drew was 97% of the students on free or reduced lunch [programs] and we’re working personally with them not just to bring in products, but bring in our people there, as well, to help teachers,” he said.

When I first heard this, I head “altruism,” but now I realize that it’s that and more. Apple has a vested interest in the education market which was more subtly expressed when I spoke to Cook and is now more overt as Apple feels its impact in grade schools slipping away.

An $399 iPad/Logitech Keyboard combo may seem like a smart, affordable alternative for schools trying to choose a standard classroom computer system.

“I don’t believe the new, lower iPad education price and keyboard is a game-changer for Apple, but it will help to regain some lost market share. I say this before we know what Microsoft is bringing out which could counter Apple,” said Moorhead.

Image: Getty Images/Hero Images

Teacher and children studying in woods. Some have the iPad in Logitech case and some have…clipboards and paper.

However, an iPad with a Keyboard and ruggedized case won’t solve Apple’s other pressing issue: Making iCloud and its iWork suite of productivity apps — Pages, Numbers and Keynote — as easy to use and as integrated with a cloud-based collaboration system as Google Docs. In this area, Google and Microsoft (with Office 365 and OneDrive) have the advantage.

It occurred to me, though, that perhaps everyone is operating under the false assumption that the educational market is a zero-sum game. Yes, the Chromebook can be the perfect school paper platform, but most entry-level Chromebooks can’t compare to some of the innovative ways an iPad app can teach young people. Can’t these two systems be considered complimentary?

I know, no self-respecting school board is going to support an apparent double-dip on technology. Parents, teachers and the board must choose. Apple’s been losing that battle.

It’s funny, almost, because Apple won the mobile battle and has made inroads in the system battle in the office thanks to the BYOT (bring your own technology) to work revolution. That revolution has not had the same impact in schools, even though most children today grow up around iPhones and know, intuitively, how to use these touch screens.

But Moorhead sees a hidden danger in all that familiarity and, especially, app choice.

“Educators actually appreciate the lack of apps for the Chromebooks so it’s a more focused device, less used to play games and do messaging.”