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Throughout 2018, Apple aggressively spotlighted its interest in education: It unveiled a new iPad at a Chicago trade school, announced numerous educational initiatives, and wrapped up the year with a media event at a Brooklyn music academy. Yesterday, despite the looming threat of new tariffs on iPhones and laptops, Apple CEO Tim Cook visited an Idaho grade school alongside presidential adviser Ivanka Trump, jointly spotlighting Apple’s donation of $100 million in hardware to low-income districts.

Cook’s appearance didn’t strike me as noteworthy because of anything he said or did while in Idaho, but rather because of what was transpiring outside the school during his visit. Apple’s 2016 donation was spread across 114 schools in 29 states, the Idaho Statesman reported, focusing on “districts where the low-income student population is at least 96 percent.” Two years later, Cook was greeted at a recipient Idaho school by crowds of both supporters and protesters, including one who criticized Apple’s donated iPads as a poor replacement for “real teaching.”

It’s tempting to write this off as a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Rather than ignoring a school with low literacy levels and little money for educational technology, Apple jumped in, and some students, parents, and teachers obviously appreciated the donations. Sure, a handful of people criticized the company after it literally gave away iPads to every student and teacher in a low-income school district, but what could it possibly have done better?

If there’s any correct answer to that question, it’s this: Apple needs to start providing options that most grade schools can afford on their own. Having grown up during Apple’s initial rise and fall, I witnessed firsthand the company’s efforts to regain footing in the K-12 educational market. Wherever and whenever it failed, the reason was the same, namely that it had been undercut by lower-priced competitors with “good enough” solutions. At some point, “good enough” rather than “insanely great” came to embody school districts’ technology expectations.

Above: The 2017 9.7-inch iPad with a third-party keyboard, requiring separate charging.

Image Credit: Jordan Novet/VentureBeat

Thirty years ago, Apple II computers dominated grade school computer labs, but as personal computers became both more powerful and common, Apple’s expensive Macintoshes fought an uphill battle to take classroom space from IBM-compatible PCs. After Dell and Compaq flooded the market with Windows PCs, Apple tried to convince price-focused administrators to view its products as longer-term investments. Even so, iMacs and eMacs never displaced PCs, and in the MacBook/iPad era, schools are instead equipping students with inexpensive Chromebooks.

Apple arguably faces a greater challenge today than it did decades ago, when schools purchased only dozens of computers for “lab” classrooms, and teachers were issued similar or slightly better models. Computers have become essential enough to modern education that even grade schools purchase Chromebooks by the hundreds or thousands, and sometimes deploy them on a per-student basis.

As a result, Apple’s current problem is one any fifth-grade math student could understand: multiplication. Students need laptops with physical keyboards, and the entry price for a keyboard-equipped Chromebook is around $200. Multiply that times 500 students, and the school’s cost is $100,000. By comparison, Apple’s least expensive laptop is $999, which would cost nearly $500,000 for 500 students. Even dropping down to the most basic iPad model with a third-party keyboard case, a school would still pay $400 per student — twice the cost of a Chromebook.

I’ll be the first to admit that few problems are as easy to fix as they superficially appear to be, and just saying “it’s about price, stupid” doesn’t mean that it’s actually that simple. But after the release of this year’s iPads (which I reviewed back in March), it should be more than obvious that Apple’s pricing strategy isn’t working for schools. The company marketed its latest 9.7-inch iPad directly to students and educators, adding a faster processor and Pencil support. But if you look at the results of that marketing effort, iPad unit sales barely changed from last year’s numbers. I’d submit that sales remained stagnant because the iPad’s entry price stayed the same, and the key feature schools were looking for — a physical keyboard — still wasn’t included.

New iPad Pro folio

Above: Apple’s new iPad Pro has a “Smart Keyboard” accessory — if you’re willing to pay nearly $1,000 for the tablet and keyboard.

Image Credit: Apple

There’s no question that Apple’s latest entry-level iPad is a better and more versatile device than a basic Chromebook. It has a better processor, twin cameras, augmented reality support, a million games, support for the first Apple Pencil, and so on. But most schools don’t care more about those things than price, and to the extent they do, they’ll buy hundreds of Chromebooks and have students share a handful of iPads.

A partial solution, and one Apple is no doubt considering, is to add an iPad Pro-style Smart Connector to the next entry-level iPad. That would make using a keyboard case even easier than it is today, and if Apple dropped its current Smart Keyboard pricing a little, an iPad could sell with a physical keyboard for around $400. That wouldn’t really solve Apple’s price problem, but it would address a key feature gap better than the options available today.

Donating hardware to low-income students was a wonderful gesture, and regardless of whether parents in Idaho appreciate the gifts their kids were given, Apple deserves credit for using its substantial resources to improve technology in over 100 schools. However, unless Apple wants to keep donating iPads, the only way to dramatically improve its position in the educational market is to start producing products that most school districts and young students can afford on their own.

If that means compromising an iPad’s materials or features a little to hit a lower price point, so be it. Apple’s industrial designers and engineers are certainly up to the task, and no one — especially cash-strapped school administrators — will mind. But it doesn’t make sense for the company to keep repeating the same experiment over and over again expecting different results. Given the lessons learned throughout 2018, my hope is that we’ll see Apple try something new and dramatically different in early 2019.

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