This summer, Microsoft will release a beta of Minecraft: Education Edition written in C++ rather than Java, which looks like removing the performance problems associated with running the current version of Minecraft. The Education Edition should run well on the types of Windows laptop commonly found in schools, and in homes.
Microsoft announced the Education Edition at the BETT 2016 educational technology exhibition held last week in London. Microsoft also announced that it had purchased MinecraftEDU, an educational version of Minecraft, from Teacher Gaming LLC. (See Microsoft acquires MinecraftEdu from Teacher Gaming.) MinecraftEDU will not be developed any further, but most of its features will be implemented in the Education Edition.
Minecraft: Education Edition also builds on and extends the Windows 10 version of Minecraft. This is based on the Pocket Edition of Minecraft (MCPE), which is written in C++, not in Java. At BETT, a Microsoft programmer told me that the aim for the Education Edition was to support all the features of the Java version. It will also include extra features that will enable teachers to control large multi-player sessions, including new commands such as Build Allow and Build Deny.
In schools and colleges that use Office 365, students will be able to log on to Minecraft using their Office credentials. Alternatively, the Education Edition can easily be set up on a peer-to-peer classroom network, without a server.
At BETT, early versions of the Education Edition were running impressively smoothly with high-resolution graphics settings on the Minecraft stand.
It remains to be seen how much of the Java version can be incorporated in the C++ version, which runs on Windows 10 PCs, tablets, smartphones and games consoles. It should be possible to import worlds, skins, maps and similar mods. However, mods written in Java code will not be compatible.
The Education Edition is both a solution and a problem for both Microsoft and the Minecraft community. It looks like providing the higher performance that Minecraft players have wanted for years. However, removing the ability to create Java-style mods might well diminish the community supporting the game. That would be extremely bad news for Microsoft, and for its $2.5 billion investment in Mojang, Minecraft's developer.
What follows is speculation....
At the moment, it looks as though there will be two versions of Minecraft - a Standard Edition and an Education Edition - with the latter feeding off the former. At first, these will have somewhat different features and capabilities, and different target audiences.
In the future, however, it seems likely that most Minecraft players will learn the new C++ version first, either in schools or on their own Windows 10 laptops, or via the Pocket edition on smartphones, tablets, and games consoles. The old Java version could therefore see a relative decline: its users may become just a small minority of the expanded market.
Obviously, Mac OS X and Linux have no problems running C++ code, but it remains to be seen whether Microsoft will port the Education Edition to these rival platforms. If it doesn't, Windows 10 will have an advantage in the education market. If it does, it could be the beginning of the end for the Java version. Why support two code-bases if you only need one?