By Lisa Eadicicco
March 28, 2018

When Apple CEO Tim Cook addressed an eager crowd on March 27 to unveil his company’s next major product, he wasn’t standing on a stage at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, or even Apple’s own brand new Steve Jobs Theater. Rather, he was in a school in Chicago surrounded by dozens of students.

That’s because Apple’s newest gadget, a refreshed 9.7-inch iPad that’s compatible with the Apple Pencil, is designed with schools in mind. The entire event was meant to demonstrate how the new iPad can be used in the classroom, from educational augmented reality experiences to text annotations and book creation to a new Schoolwork app that teachers can use to distribute classwork to students.

Some would say Apple’s latest push into the education market is a return to its roots — Apple’s Macintosh lineup was a mainstay in classrooms nationwide through the ’90s, after all. But the iPad announcement is also indicative of a larger trend in Silicon Valley: Big tech firms see the classroom as their next major battleground.

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop, the first device of its kind the Windows maker created itself rather than through its hardware partners, was marketed toward college students when it was unveiled during an education-focused event last May. Earlier this year, Microsoft and its partners also debuted inexpensive new Windows PCs designed for the classroom. And just one day before Apple’s event, Google and Acer unveiled the first ever Chrome OS-powered tablet, a push by the search giant to maintain its lead in classrooms across the country. Google’s Chromebooks accounted for 59.6% of mobile computing shipments in the kindergarten through 12th grade market in the fourth quarter of 2017, according to Futuresource Consulting. By comparison, Windows accounted for 25.6% and iOS comprised 10.6% of shipments.

Among the reasons tech giants are scrambling to get their gadgets into schools: It’s a big business opportunity. The education technology market is expected to reach $252 billion by 2020, according to a report published by education-focused technology conference host EdTechXGlobal and advisory firm IBIS Capital. But there’s potential upside even after students leave the classroom and turn into fully-fledged consumers, too. “It gets people using your technology young,” says Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices for GlobalData. “The hope is that they stick with it.”

Apple’s iOS devices may not be as widely used in schools as Google’s Chromebooks or Windows laptops. Still, Greengart believes the iPad’s Apple Pencil stylus integration could give the Cupertino, Calif.-based iPhone maker an advantage. With its newest iPad, Apple is showcasing how the Pencil can be used to sketch and handwrite in slideshow presentations and reports, among other tasks. “There are things you can do with a pencil that you can’t do with a keyboard,” says Greengart, such as digitally marking up students’ papers with the Pencil. “That may prove to be appealing because that mimics the way many teachers work today.”

The new iPad’s price could prove to be an obstacle for adoption within schools. Although Apple is offering its new iPad at just $299 for schools — notably cheaper than its iPad Pro tablets, which start at $649 — Chromebooks can still be a cheaper option for cash-strapped districts. These Google-powered laptops, some of which cost less than $300, already come with a keyboard attached. Those who want to use a keyboard with the new iPad will have to purchase a Bluetooth accessory separately, and the Pencil will also cost an extra $89. Google’s cloud-based Chromebooks also offer the benefit of making it easy to continue your work from any computer simply by logging into your Google account.

Apple’s success in the classroom will in part depend on whether or not schools invest in creative learning applications like the ones Apple demonstrated on stage this week, according to Ben Davis of Futuresource Consulting, which tracks mobile computer shipments in the education market. “Not all schools are invested in these activities at present,” Davis said via email. “So some schools have invested in devices to support other functions, like online testing, many at a lower cost than iPad solutions.”

Business interests aside, tech companies’ push into innovation might offer them a much-needed PR boost. As issues like privacy, cyberbullying and screen addiction continue to dominate the conversation around technology, pitching plans to help students learn could boost Silicon Valley’s stature in the eyes of many across the country. “The hope is that by working in education, your brand is associated with a positive cause,” says Greengart. That education is also a lucrative market means that the race among tech giants to reign supreme in schools will only get more intense moving forward.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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