Sam Morris, Lenovo's Global Education Solution Architect, gave a keynote speech at the BETT technology and training exhibition in London last week. I interviewed him about developments in the global marketplace, including the Chromebook's remarkable success in American schools.
Lenovo is uniquely placed to provide a global view. It's a Chinese company that has acquired three large US-based businesses: IBM's PC and x86 server divisions, and Motorola. It's the world's biggest PC manufacturer, and it also makes lots of Chromebooks, Android tablets and smartphones. Indeed, I'm a Lenovo phone user, though if you asked, I'd say it was a Google Nexus 6.
Lenovo is also agnostic about operating systems, and will pre-load whatever sells. "Our business is about building great hardware, based on innovation and reliability," says Morris. "We're willing to partner with whatever operating system or ecosystem schools find valuable. Some schools out there would probably appreciate it if we could make another OS available, but that somebody is not going to let me do that! Apple killed their student education laptop, their old MacBook, which was a great solution...."
My question is: Why have Chromebooks been so successful in the USA and not anywhere else? Was it just the debacle of the Los Angeles deal for Apple iPads?
"Not so much," says Morris. "The iPad was very difficult to manage and a lot of districts got burned by how difficult that experience was. But there was a perfect storm of three real significant events in the US that made the Chromebook what it is today, which is, in the US, the largest platform for education.
"Manageability was one, but the second was that the federal government didn't fund schools to buy devices. They took the tax money collected for education and required it to be spent on infrastructure - specifically, connectivity. By mandating that every school be cloud-connected, they created a very fertile landscape for a cloud-connected device. This is one of the major hurdles for Chromebooks in other regions.
"The third was the mandate that every student needed to have access to a device for digital testing. So there was a demand for a device for testing, and all it had to do was serve a secure browser, because the tests were online. And so you had this need for devices, which obviously reflects on cost, you had this fertile ground of connectivity, and you had this 'Can I manage it really easily?' ... and Google showed up with the Chromebook."
To meet this demand, Lenovo now offers almost identical hardware in several Windows and Chromebook laptops. This applies to both of its "halo products" for education, the ThinkPad 11e and N21 (plus the new Lenovo N22, due in February). "Other industries buy them," Morris says, "but 95 percent of the market is student devices."
The development started in the netbook era. "We saw the demand, and we saw the willingness of schools to buy relatively low-powered PCs that were not necessarily well designed for the educational environment. We saw a lot of damage, especially the hardware failures, so we started designing a device that would survive in that environment. We're now on the sixth generation with the ThinkPad 11e.
"We make it in both a Yoga form factor and a clamshell form factor. The Yoga has the full 360-degree hinge that we invented, that now the industry has adopted as a standard. Schools really like the tablet experience, and we've even brought pen input to the 11e. It's the product I'm most proud of.
"We don't do the pen on the Chromebook because Chrome doesn't value it. Chrome doesn't sustain that type of innovation, and that type of investment in a hardware solution. Prices have to be sub-$250. So we designed the N21 for that market, and we've just announced the N22 as the next generation. Again, because we're platform agnostic, that will be available with Windows or Chrome."
Lenovo sells cheaper Windows 10 laptops to consumers, but Morris says "we're really not keen to put those into schools. Students just open and close their laptops more than you do, so you'd better rate those hinge cycles to be more than a consumer laptop, which is probably about 10,000 cycles. An enterprise-grade laptop might be 25,000 cycles, whereas our 11e is all the way up to 50,000 cycles. If you're a laptop born into education, it's a different lifestyle than if you're born into corporate America. Kids don't sit at tables all day."
Morris reckons the 360-degree hinge is better than "detachable" 2-in-1s and tablets with keyboards because "the first thing schools do with a tablet is wrap a big case around it, and that keyboard doesn't fit any more." Case manufacturers haven't really worked around that problem yet. When they do, it may be too late.
"I think the tablet is in trouble," says Morris. "Two or three years ago, the laptop was going to be the victim and the tablet was going to take over. Today, the 8-inch and 10-inch tablets are in danger of being overtaken by phablets. I can do work on a 6-inch phablet much easier than on a 4-inch screen, and a 6-inch phone versus an 8-inch tablet? What's the big difference, really?"
But as Morris says, "it's not one market. Different regions have different forces acting on them. In some cultures, technology is a leapfrog - they may not even have textbooks - and digital content is a way for ministries to transform their populace. Some regions still have connectivity challenges. The EU has concerns with Google's practices.... But if you want a $200 machine, both Windows and Chromebooks are going to be there this year."