Microsoft Unveils K-12 Operating System, Tools to Challenge Google

Managing Editor

New York City

Microsoft unveiled a new, streamlined operating system and a bevy of classroom tools, products that in design and spirit seem aimed at competing with ascendant Chromebooks and other Google offerings in the school market.

At a product announcement on Tuesday crowded with company employees and tech journalists, Microsoft executives repeatedly touted a theme in describing the new operating system, Windows 10 S, and the accompanying products: simplicity.

The goal is “simplify to magnify,” Terry Myerson, Microsoft’s executive vice president of the Windows and devices group, told the assembled crowd. “Simplicity is power.”

“Technology should help, not hinder, teachers’ work in the classroom,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said. It should make educators’ jobs easier, and “spark students’ creativity.”

Microsoft also announced the launch of a new device, designed to run Windows 10 S, a Surface Laptop, a thin, lightweight device, 13.5 inches wide, costing $999. It has more than 14 hours of battery life. That laptop is designed for college students, with a focus on security, and simplicity and showcasing the features of Windows 10 S, the company said.

In addition, Microsoft used the New York event to tout the availability of Window 10 S devices made by its partners–including Acer, Dell, HP, and Toshiba–starting at a cost of $189.

All of the applications that run on the Windows 10 S have to be downloaded from the Windows store, Microsoft officials said. Users who want to access other apps can upgrade to Windows 10 Pro, which is free to education users and costs at most $49 to other customers, the company said. Microsoft will suggest alternative applications to programs users want that the company doesn’t offer.

Google’s Chrome operating system, which runs on Chromebooks, has emerged as dominant in the United States’ K-12 education market over the past few years.

Those Google operating systems—installed on devices made by different manufacturers —represent 58 percent of the U.S. market today, compared to 38 percent two years ago, according to Futuresource Consulting, a British market research company.

Google also provides a classroom productivity platform, G Suite for Education, that has become a big fixture in schools, where teachers use it for peer-to-peer collaboration, assigning and reviewing student lessons, and other functions.

On Tuesday, Microsoft officials also described a series of changes they’re making to Office 365 for Education, a rival to G Suite. The changes are designed to ramp up collaboration and integration with school learning management and student information systems, among other upgrades.

The new Windows 10 S operating system is cloud-based, and along with the Surface device is designed to load quickly, which has been an appealing feature of Chromebooks to school officials.

“This is 100 percent a direct Chrome competition,” Mike Fisher, an associate director of education at Futuresource Consulting, said in an e-mail describing Microsoft’s new products. The company “is trying to bring speed, simplicity to the [operating system].”

But one of the questions is whether K-12 users will want to stick to the apps available in the Windows store, Fisher said, or if they’ll feel encumbered by having to clear a hoop to pursue additional options.

“Microsoft has, on paper, ticked a lot of the obvious Chromebook advantages,” Fisher said. “How is the experience [going to be for users], though? Is it a well-integrated, smooth one?”

Not all of the Microsoft’s planned changes are focused on devices and productivity tools.  The company said it is also adding features to encourage schools’ development of student coding skills within Minecraft, the popular, immersive game that allows students to explore using building blocks. (Microsoft acquired the game a few years ago.)

While Google has made big gains in the U.S. market, Microsoft is still the leading provider of operating systems in the rest of the world by far, Futuresource’s data show. Windows has 65 percent of the market outside of the United States, an estimate based on annual shipments of products.

School districts today are inundated with ed-tech offerings—devices, platforms, digital curricula, games, communication tools and other tools.

But educators often have little way to judge the quality of those products, and so many of them end up making buying on the basis of some combination of companies’ reputations, recommendations from other districts, cost, and other factors.

Time Saving in Mind

Many school districts are attracted to the low cost of Chromebooks—they can be purchased for well under $200—and their ease-of-use. The devices fire up quickly and have enough memory to perform many of the functions required of students, K-12 officials have told Marketplace K-12 in recent interviews.

Microsoft seems intent on trying to beat out Google’s attributes on those and other fronts.

The changes Microsoft is making to Office 365 include the creation of new school-focused features for Teams, a platform designed to help teachers easily manage their workflow and their communication with students and others.  The Teams functions allow teachers to create online hubs for their classes and populate them with student rosters taken from student information systems. They can share assignments, divide the class into project groups and monitor progress.

The Teams features are meant to offer educators a rich array of options for organizing their classes and helping students, said Eran Megiddo, a corporate vice president of Microsoft, in an interview after the event.

But even with those functions, the product is also a response to feedback Microsoft has heard from educators looking for relief from much of the busywork that siphons time away from their instruction, he added.

“The number one request, if I had to distill it to anything, is: ‘Save me time, so I can go teach,’” Megiddo said.

“It sounds like a basic [goal], but it is real. Because they have so much time that is taken away from them—for administration, for paperwork, for photocopying.”

Whether Microsoft’s new version of 365 can win over educators and other school officials who are loyal to G Suite remains to be seen.

Among the arguments Microsoft is making to schools, Megiddo said, is that Office 365 and features like Teams bring value because they rely on the same kind of collaborative features students will encounter in the workplace. Microsoft’s long history in developing tech for businesses has given the company insight into how companies promote collaboration among teams of employees, and how to prepare students for that leap.

Products offered by Office 365’s competitors “fall off, the day you leave school because they’re about assignments in the classroom. It’s a classroom product,” Megiddo said.

“This is a ‘Teams’ product, brought into the classroom. You’re in an environment you will not outgrow. You’re in an environment that looks like what a work environment will look like.”

Correction: The original post misspelled the name of Eran Megiddo, of Microsoft. It also misstated the cost of the new Surface laptop.

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