Microsoft out to regain ground in schools with Surface

Mr Panos Panay, vice president of Microsoft Surface Computing, speaking about the Microsoft Surface Laptop at a launch event.
Mr Panos Panay, vice president of Microsoft Surface Computing, speaking about the Microsoft Surface Laptop at a launch event. PHOTO: AFP
Mr Panos Panay, vice president of Microsoft Surface Computing, speaking about the Microsoft Surface Laptop at a launch event.
Mr Panos Panay, vice president of Microsoft Surface Computing, speaking about the Microsoft Surface Laptop at a launch event. PHOTO: AFP
Mr Panos Panay, vice president of Microsoft Surface Computing, speaking about the Microsoft Surface Laptop at a launch event.
Mr Panos Panay, vice president of Microsoft Surface Computing, speaking about the Microsoft Surface Laptop at a launch event. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (AFP, NYT) - Microsoft on Tuesday (May 2) unveiled a Surface laptop and streamlined operating software in a move aimed at regaining ground in classrooms, where Google Chromebooks have taken hold.

Surface Laptop powered by a Windows 10 S operating system were shown off at an education-focused Microsoft event in New York City, and will hit the market next month in an array of countries with the hardware starting at US$999.

The Surface Laptop was aimed at college students and evidently intended to set a performance bar for partners, some of which will be coming to market with lower priced computers powered by Windows 10 S to entice students at all grade levels.

"Our goal with Windows 10 S is to develop the open vibrant partner-centric ecosystem we have today," Windows and Device group executive vice president Terry Myerson said in a release.

He gave a list of partners that included Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, HP, Samsung, and Toshiba, and said Windows 10 S devices priced as low as US$189 should be available in coming months.

Microsoft is taking orders for the Surface Laptop, and planned to begin shipping them in mid-June.

Computers running on streamlined Windows 10 S will tap into online tools such as Microsoft Office 365, according to the Redmond, Washington-based technology giant. Windows 10 S will also only run applications that have been vetted by Microsoft and placed in its online app store, to prevent students from downloading software that could slow down the performance of their computers.

Microsoft has also devised a way for schools to get new computers running on a network quickly, without manually configuring each one, by plugging in a USB memory stick. A Microsoft management system called Intune for Education allows schools to set further limits on classroom computers, like locking them down so students cannot cheat by searching the Web during tests.

The tools are designed to be easy enough for teachers to use, since many schools do not have dedicated technology administrators.

"Windows 10 S is inspired by students and teachers, streamlined for simplicity, security and superior performance," Mr Myerson said. "I believe it best reflects the soul of Windows."

Microsoft also announced a partnership with educational company Pearson to integrate 3D and mixed reality experiences into higher level curriculum.

The alliance could lead to classroom content tailored for Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality headgear.

Tech companies are fiercely competing for business in primary and secondary schools in the US, a technology market expected to reach US$21 billion by 2020, according to estimates from Ibis Capital, a technology investment firm, and EdtechXGlobal, a conference company.

Industry analysts said Microsoft's initiative was the company's first credible response to Google's recent encroachment into education.

Google Chromebooks that act as gateways to programs and services hosted in the Internet cloud have become a hit in US classrooms, taking terrain once dominated by Microsoft and Apple.

"I am not going to predict that they are going to take back the entire market or anything like that, but this is the best move that I could have seen them making against Chromebooks," said Mr J.P. Gownder, a technology analyst at Forrester Research, a market research company, where Microsoft is one of his clients.

Chromebooks accounted for 58 per cent of the 12.6 million mobile devices shipped to primary and secondary schools in the US last year, compared with less than 1 per cent in 2012, according to Futuresource Consulting, a research company.

By contrast, Windows laptops and tablets made up 21.6 per cent of the mobile-device shipments to schools in the US last year, down from about 43 per cent in 2012.

Outside the US, Microsoft Windows devices accounted for about 64 per cent of mobile-device shipments to schools last year, Futuresource said.

Apple has similarly experienced a steep Chromebook-related decline in shipments of iPads and Mac laptops to schools. Its mobile shipments to schools fell to 19 per cent in the US last year, from 52 per cent in 2012.

Like Microsoft, Apple is not taking the Chromebook phenomenon lying down. Apple recently introduced an iPad management app called Classroom, which enables teachers to assign shared iPads to students and create virtual classrooms to guide students through lessons. Apple also introduced lower pricing for educational institutions on its newest iPad model. The iPad starts at US$329 for consumers and at US$299 for schools.

Google began to take off in schools in the US in 2013, when school districts started making bulk purchases of Chromebooks, which are now made by Acer, Asus, Lenovo, HP and other computer makers.

Because the laptops run on Google's Chrome operating system and revolve around Web-based apps, they are often cheaper, easier to manage and faster to boot up than traditional laptops.

By contrast, Mr Gownder of Forrester Research said that Microsoft software is so feature-rich that technology experts in many school districts have had to devote their summers to preparing Windows laptops for students one device at a time.

And some of Microsoft's initial attempts to contend with Google's rise in schools stumbled. In 2014, Microsoft announced it would be going head-to-head with Chromebooks by working with device manufacturers to introduce cheaper Windows laptops.

But some schools found the lower-priced Windows devices too cheaply made to withstand student use and too low-powered to efficiently run Microsoft software.

"The cheapest of them would not work," said Mr Hal Friedlander, a former chief information officer of the New York City Department of Education.

Google began to win the classroom software wars as well. In 2014, the company introduced Google Classroom, an app that teachers could use to digitise daily tasks, like assigning homework or taking attendance. It quickly became a hub where teachers could hold class discussions, communicate with individual students and keep parents updated on classroom news.

While Microsoft had successfully developed a loyal following among teachers for certain tools - like Skype and its OneNote notebook organiser program - the company had no answer for the classroom management system, which Google had developed specifically for teachers.

"The challenge for Microsoft is that it did not seem to have a coherent strategy," said Mr Friedlander, who is now chief executive of the Technology for Education Consortium, a nonprofit group that promotes transparent pricing for technology sales to schools.