“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” -- Robert Frost
It was exciting to hear that Apple would talk about education in the Oct 23 event. But what we got were just tiny bits and pieces, crumbs. And not so great iPad mini pricing for our schoolkids.
Apple's educational announcements during the Oct 23 keynote didn't amount to much. There were minor improvements to iBooks Author, only one notable feature in iBooks 3 and a flashy but not exactly market-defining quote from a Texas school superintendent.
I am familiar with how things like this go. A quote is solicited, through channels, by Apple marketing. The best is forwarded to one of Phil Schiller’s senior execs. So while it’s true what Mr. Cook said, this is the kind of thing Apple is “hearing” (41m47s in the Keynote), the manner by which the quote was acquired is often not that by which the speaker would have us infer. In effect, Dr. Ponce gets his name in lights and all concerned are happy. It’s handsome marketing disguised as technical exposition.
Cutting Through the Glitz
While Mr. Cook said (43m22s) that eBooks created with iBooks Author are in 2500 schools in the U.S., the slide behind him, which has to be considered definitive, said "2500 classrooms." That sounds a lot like wriggle wording. How many classrooms per school? The result could be something on the order of 250 schools. "According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 98,817 public schools during the 2009-2010 school year." No matter how you do the math, there's nothing to boast about.
Image Credit: Apple
So what has Apple done, in practical terms, to make the iPad mini accessible and what is Apple doing to take a real leadership position in K-12 education?
Marketing or Action?
First, iBooks is only available in iOS. One could argue that because there are so many iOS devices out there (400 million) Apple doesn't need to worry about making iBooks available on other platforms, even the Mac. Recall, however, that the iPod didn't really take off until Apple both ditched FireWire and went to USB and also made iTunes available for Windows. Vendor lock-in is not a strategy that will allow widespread penetration of education via iBooks when students and schools can't afford premium-priced iPad minis.
Second, I know from private discussions that students in many schools, especially rural schools, are not going to be able to afford $329 for an iPad mini -- even with a standard educational discount. (Sure, support is baked in, but it's also baked into BMWs.) This country is still emerging from a deep recession. So the pricing is not a matter of keeping Apple's brand intact. Rather, it's a question of how serious Apple is about trading a little bit of profit, gained on the backs of students, for a visible commitment to education.
The announced pricing might be considered reasonable if Apple had massive R&D costs to recover. Coming from an experienced, savvy tablet manufacturer with over US$100 billion dollars in assets and in-place, advanced manufacturing equipment, it's hard to swallow.
But there's that nasty thing about the integrity of the iPod touch product line pricing and how it relates to iPad mini pricing. There was some hope that Apple would adjust the specifications of a non-Retina iPad mini to justify a price lower than the cheapest iPod touch, to get to something in the $250 range, a sweet spot as solid in its analyst prognostications as the iPad mini moniker has been. I wrote about that previously, and it's a hard decision.
Apple likes to talk about how wonderful tablets are in education, and to be sure, there are many showcase schools that are adopting them. There are countries whose schools are in better financial shape than ours, but by and large, teachers in the U.S. aren't currently looking at a one-on-one situation with iPads, that is, one iPad per student. Not by a long shot and not soon. And Apple did nothing on October 23 to improve that situation.
Take the Money and Run
One path would have been a vision, a commitment, and a desire to truly make an education tablet for the masses. Apple had the opportunity with the iPad mini to make it the pervasive tablet in U.S. K-12 education. Instead, Apple deferred. Tim Cook talked the talk about education, Phil Schiller has said in the past that education is in Apple’s DNA, but the company has created a premium priced product for a non-premium funded market. Even investors didn't like that attitude, according to news reports.
With this product, Apple has only partially slammed the door shut on the $199 tablets. Currently, those tablets are not so great for education either. However, when Apple leaves an opportunity on the table, we know that aggressive competitors will look to gain a foothold in any market they can.