iPad dominates the schools market, but for how long? App-maker John Friend investigates
The landscape of technology in schools has changed rapidly since the iPad launched just over three and a half years ago. Now around 40 per cent of UK primary schools are using tablets, and almost 20 per cent of pre-schools. That’s according to research my company, Apps in My Pocket, carried out earlier this year.
At the end of October, Apple CEO Tim Cook came up with an extraordinary claim of a 94 per cent market share in the education tablet market in the US. That figure took a lot of people by surprise, but it was a relief for me.
That's because it showed that my own research, which had found a 50-to-1 ratio of iPad’s to Android tablets in US schools, was pretty much on the money. However, as accurate as that might be, it’s only part of the story. So I hope I can put that figure into better context here.
The reason I conducted this research was to see whether I should put my resources into developing a version of my PocketPhonics app for other platforms like Android or Windows. It’s not a trivial thing to commit to, and I can’t afford to do something like that unless I’ve got a very good chance of success.
PocketPhonics launched for the iPhone and iPod Touch almost five years ago. That makes me a grand old veteran of the App Store. It’s been a tough journey to stay in the bestseller list for that time. None of my original competitors are still around, but the draw of the App Store riches mean more appear all the time. So it’s only sensible for me to look at new platforms, as it would seem a logical route to new markets.
Sixty per cent of the market hasn’t made up its mind yet
Of course the headline from my research looked to be this massive iOS market share, and that is important. For me, it points towards other platforms being a pretty bad bet. It would be impossible for me to be profitable in education with such tiny market share for anything but iOS. But a more important number for the big picture is the relatively small number of schools using tablets at the moment.
Currently 40 per cent of UK primary schools are using iPads and 18 per cent of pre-schools. These are often only trials and are sometimes led by teachers taking in their own devices. Typically classes only have a few devices to share among pupils. One-to-one deployments are very rare in UK primaries.
The survey did show that almost all teachers think that tablet-based learning is inevitable, and in the not too distant future. And what that adds up to is that 60 per cent of the market hasn’t made up its mind yet. So Apple has a huge market share, but only of 40 per cent of the market, leaving 60 per cent still up for grabs.
The battle is far from over, and considering how Android and other platforms are eating away at Apple’s market share elsewhere, only a fool would assume the education market has already been spoken for.
At the moment people buying tablets for education are almost exclusively buying Apple, despite apparently higher costs. In the current financial climate that looks like a bold move. I wanted to investigate further.
We asked why the schools had chosen iPad, and two answers came out predominantly: the quality of the device and the availability of apps. When we asked parents to tell us the education apps they’d most recommend, we found that only one of their top ten education apps was on the Google Play store. Plus, Apple’s own apps are very popular in schools too.
PocketPhonics started life as an education app for parents teaching their children to read on the iPhone. Five years ago there were no tablets, and no education market for them. But as schools started to use iPads, my customers encouraged me make my apps more school-friendly. So now they have features like a classroom view of progress, weekly reports and so on. New developers need to understand the needs of teacher, if they are to stand a chance.
Android and Windows caught in a catch-22 for education
I think Android and Windows tablets are caught in a catch-22 for education. Schools won’t buy their tablets because they don’t have the popular educational apps, and developers won’t port their apps because schools are just buying iPads.
Apple is a premium brand and I’m not convinced that this mono-culture of iOS dominance is necessarily good for schools. Competition is a good thing and the current lack of it makes it an uncomfortable place for decision makers trying to cut a deal with Apple. But their hands are tied until the other platforms can attract developers like me.
If another platform gained enough of the apps, then momentum could switch fast and the education market might start to look more like the general tablet market where Apple has lost a lot of market share. The app developers will go where they think they can get the best return on their investment. There are several things platforms could do.
The hardware needs to compete with the iPad options. Platforms also need to understand that part of the reason the iPad is so popular is that even the iPad 2 and iPad Mini include all the features that schools want, including rear and front cameras and long battery life. Often low-cost tablets lack these cameras. Also, schools seem to have a preference for larger tablets as opposed to minis. Amazon’s cheapest large tablet without sponsored screensavers and with a rear camera costs £10 more than an iPad 2. Although the Kindle Fire XDX8.9 has a higher pixel resolution, its screen is still physically smaller than an iPad 2.
Android and Windows platforms can act to encourage developers
Something else that would make a huge difference would be to guarantee that the best-selling apps to schools would earn more sales on their platform. The platform would under-write the guarantee so that if a best-selling developer on their platform could have done better elsewhere the platform makes up the difference. The beauty of this is that it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as developers would flock to this platform followed by consumers chasing the swelling availability of high-quality education apps.
Another approach would be to create the means by which schools can easily license apps on an annual renewal per pupil basis. This would create a sustainable revenue stream for app developers.
It would also be helpful to make administration of devices simple for schools, with controlled access to the Internet and apps even when the students take them home. There’s nothing likely to create a backlash faster than the discovery of pupils using the devices to gain access to the less pleasant elements of the internet.
Once those things are in place, I think we’ll see a more balanced playing field. Google is starting to address some of these issues with Google Play for Education which has just recently launched.
So the fight-back has started, and I, along with lots of other developers will be eyeing progress closely. As soon as it makes sense to support other platforms I feel sure the developers will be there.
John Friend is MD of Apps in My Pocket, and his PocketPhonics app has been in the bestseller list of the Apple App Store since its launch in December 2008.