If a low-cost Microsoft Surface with a cloud-based Windows operating system sounds a lot like a Chromebook, that’s probably no coincidence. Windows PCs have lost ground in the U.S. education market to Google’s browser-based laptops. As Microsoft sends out invitations for a May 5 event in New York, rumors suggest the company will announce a Surface for schools—among other things.
Microsoft’s invitation to the event included the hashtag “#MicrosoftEDU,” framing the announcement within the context of the classroom. Microsoft is expected to weave together several announcements: a new Surface device, a new, managed Windows Cloud operating system, and probably a look ahead to the next major Windows update, dubbed Redstone 3. Other possibilities include a quiet refresh of the Surface Pro 4 with a new 7th-generation Kaby Lake chip, as well as an intriguing but unsubstantiated rumor that some form of Windows Cloud could replace Windows Mobile.
Why this matters: Microsoft has repeatedly struggled to compete with Chromebooks. Little more than a year ago, for example, Acer, JP.IK, Lenovo all launched rugged clamshell PCs featuring spillproof keyboards, with prices beginning at $199. Microsoft launched Intune for Education, a version of its Intune management application that was supposed to make managing 30 or so PCs per classroom a snap. Apparently, it didn’t help: Chromebook momentum is still climbing, according to Jay Chou, who tracks PC sales for IDC.
Since bursting onto the scene in 2011, the Chromebook has excelled in academia, displacing Apple’s Macs and iPads, as well as Windows PCs. According to IDC, 7.5 million Chromebooks were sold into the U.S. education (K-12) market during 2016, versus 2 million Windows PCs. Microsoft must chip away at Chromebook’s heftier share before Windows PCs drop out of school altogether.
First, though, Microsoft has to convince technology purchasers at individual school districts that Windows machines are a stronger value. It could be a tough assignment.
“Chromebooks are successful in education for three key reasons,” Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder said in an email. “First, a great deal of educational software is now delivered over the web, which satisfies the precondition for using a web-based OS. Second, price—from a total cost of ownership perspective, which includes the device but also the manageability—has tended to come in lower for most schools. Third (and related), they are secure and manageable: As nearly zero-state devices, it’s easy to pass a Chromebook from student to student without security issues. And they are far easier to manage and deploy than existing Windows PC management tools.”