Microsoft Unveils Lower-Cost K-12 Devices in Fight for School Market

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Microsoft has unveiled lower-cost laptop devices and revamped features within its classroom-productivity tools, a series of changes that come as the corporation battles Google and Apple for supremacy in the school market.

In an announcement today timed with the opening of the sprawling Bett ed-tech show in London, Microsoft said it was responding to demands from schools for low-cost technology that also fosters creativity in “STEM” and other subjects.

Sales of Chromebooks — devices that operate on the Google operating systems — have surged in U.S. schools over the past few years, and Google now has 58 percent of the market share for operating systems in that market, according to a recent estimate.

In nationwide survey results released by EdWeek Market Brief last year, K-12 officials said they preferred Chromebooks to Microsoft and Apple products in a number of areas, especially affordability.

Microsoft officials have argued that their devices and platforms offer students and teachers a richer, more varied experience than Chromebooks can. But in their new announcement, they also acknowledged that price point weighs heavily on many school buyers.

“Affordability is the top priority for many schools,” said Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for the Windows and device group, in a blog post detailing the new changes. “Shrinking budgets can lead schools to choose devices with a stripped-down experience and a limited lifespan, unfortunately costing more over time and offering less to students.”

Price Points, and ‘STEM’

In an interview, Microsoft Vice President for Worldwide Education Anthony Salcito said the company has collected feedback from its K-12 users about what it can do better–and it is responding.

Last year, Microsoft announced a new, bundled package of education tools and apps, designed in part to streamline the purchasing and management of its products for K-12 systems. The latest changes reflect a desire to re-examine the company’s core offerings and improve them, Salcito said.

“We know the value and importance that school leaders place on acquiring devices…and we’ve been working to make devices easier, and more powerful in the classroom,” Salcito said. “Easier to manage. Easier to support.”

Without sacrificing the tech features that appeal to schools, Microsoft can compete on price, Salcito argued. “We’ve been focused on solving that, while providing all of the richness that Windows has and continues to offer schools.”

On Monday, Microsoft laid out details of changes that it says will answer schools’ specific needs:

  • New, lower-cost devices that run Windows 10 operating systems, including a Lenovo 100e for $189, with other models with prices below $300.
  • The integration of features from Office 365 for education–Microsoft’s classroom productivity suite, which is free to schools–into the student information system run by PowerSchool. The companies say  the move will give teachers broader classroom management tools within Office 365. A similar arrangement is being made between Microsoft and a provider of student information systems in United Kingdom, SIMS Capita.
  • Other changes to Office 365 to help students with a variety of demands, including special needs, such as new features for dictation, immersive reading, and support for new languages.
  • An update to the immersive game Minecraft: Education Edition, designed to engage students in chemistry through virtual experimentation and other tasks.
  • A broader series of changes to STEM-focused products. Those include new apps and new curricula; a new partnership with LEGO Education to create an online hacking/STEM lesson plan; and an expanded mixed-reality curriculum through a partnership with PBS and NASA.

Ben Davis, a senior market analyst for education at Futuresource Consulting, which studies trends in buying, saw the Microsoft announcement as part of a series of moves by the company to change its K-12 products and approach over the past year. He included changes that Microsoft has made to MS Teams, a communication and classroom-management platform; and inTune for Education, a cloud-based app and management service, as part of that mix.

Clearly, many of the changes are being made with Google squarely in mind, said Davis. He predicts Microsoft’s efforts would pay off with gains in market share for Windows devices in the United States, and a potential staving off of some Chromebook gains internationally.

But Google is a formidable and ambitious rival, Davis said. In addition to its strong presence in the United States, Google is expanding its footprint in “key developed education markets” in western Europe and regions in and around Australia, he said. (Microsoft currently leads the international K-12 market in selling mobile devices, Futuresource data show.)

Despite Microsoft’s changes, “Chromebooks are expected to maintain U.S. market leadership,” Davis said in an e-mail.

“In the longer term, competition in the K-12 space is expected to intensify as the global market continues to expand and OS providers continue to invest in the space.”

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