Lenovo becomes the first major PC OEM to build and sell Classmate PCs

With Lenovo in the picture, the momentum of the Intel Learning Series should increase rapidly. There are going to be a lot of Classmate PCs headed to students this year.

Lenovo and Intel announced today that the world's #4 PC manufacturer would become the first global manufacturer and distributor of the Classmate PC. Called the Lenovo Classmate+, the rugged clamshell netbook will feature extensive customization options for schools, districts, states, and ministries of education looking to deploy 1:1 solutions.

So why is this big news? Way back in January 2008, I suggested that a major OEM should pick up Intel's reference design and start cranking out Classmate PCs. A lot of them. After all, they were (and still are) tough little computers that kids could use without fear of damaging expensive equipment.

In fact, the Classmate remains one of the best examples of what netbooks should be as purpose-built, low-cost machines. It doesn't hurt that the clamshell version (versus the convertible tablet, but more on that later) is as close as you're going to get to a ruggedized PC anywhere near this price point.

As Michael Schmedlen, Lenovo's Director of Worldwide Education, explained,

“As the fastest-growing PC company in education, we are committed to creating education solutions that improve schools' efficiency, as well as leading initiatives to evaluate how technology can measurably improve learning outcomes.”

I had the chance to speak with him on Wednesday and he expanded on that idea:

Lenovo is fastest growing major pc manufacturer in the world. We grew faster in edu than any other PC OEM [and] designed the Classmate+ from the ground up for students and...student budgets.

The student budgets part is where things get interesting. Lenovo has global reach that the local OEMs with whom Intel has typically partnered on Classmate PC simply can't match. While pricing for the Classmate+ hasn't been released, I think it's safe to say that it will be aggressive. Economies of scale are a school's best friend. This is also why the company is only releasing the clamshell version at this time. With high worldwide demand and low component prices, the company can reach as many students globally as possible with very cost-effective devices.

Schmedlen, however, noted that their entry into this market was not just about global supply chains, market share, or emerging vs. mature markets. Rather, the company went so far as to open a large educational research lab in its North Carolina US headquarters and devote considerable time, energy, and research funding to the ideas of "improving learning outcomes and operational efficiencies" for educational deployments.

Wait, did he just say "improving learning outcomes"? I think he also said research. Go figure.

When private industry steps up and takes a really active approach to not just making better computers but ensuring that they are actually deployed and implemented in the classroom with best practices and state-of-the-art approaches to technology-enabled learning, good things tend to happen.

That being said, I was concerned that a company with the reach of Lenovo might spell problems for the local OEMs that have been deploying Classmates around the world. These small companies have created local jobs in emerging markets; would Lenovo be the Walmart of Classmate PCs, making them irrelevant?

Both Schmedlen and Intel's Kapil Wadhera, General Manager, Education Market Platform Group, said "No." Both saw room for global players as well as local players in a market of many millions of students (3 million Classmates have been deployed to date and, with 1 billion students worldwide, there are plenty of untapped markets). Additionally, local OEMs may be better suited to specialized deployments, be the choice of local ministries of education, and/or serve as value-added resellers for Lenovo's equipment.

For my part, I'd gladly buy from Lenovo and take advantage of state contract procurement rules and the ThinkVantage software that can be pre-loaded along with Intel's educational software stack. If you've ever restored a hosed computer with Lenovo's Linux-based ThinkVantage tools, you'll know what I mean. It's fast and easy, right out of the box.

Lenovo, like the local OEMs, will also install custom software images, whether with localized languages, specialized Linux distributions, or additional software.

In their first such deployment, the two companies also announced that

This spring, the Organization of Ibero-American States [which includes Spain and most Latin American countries] will deploy the first wave of 158,000 Lenovo Classmate+ laptops as part of its Conectar Igualdad 1:1 [The Equality Connecting Program] computing program, which will equip students throughout the country with PC technology.

Although I have reviewed Classmate PCs extensively in the past, a Lenovo review unit should be making its way to me shortly. I'll put this latest iteration through its paces and report back.