This Is The Biggest Competitor To The iPad In The Hot Education Market
The iPad's biggest success has been among K-12 schools. That's where it also faces one of its strongest competitors, a spinoff of an obscure 29-year-old Midwestern company that has made inroads where Amazon, Google and Samsung could not.
That's right - this family-owned Indianapolis, Indiana firm has succeeded against mighty Apple with its $375 tablet where Google, Samsung and Amazon have so far failed.
It's particularly impressive because among educators, Apple has the same cachet that IBM once owned in the enterprise. If no corporate CIO used to get fired for buying Big Blue, then few school principals or district CIOs get overly grilled for choosing iPads over other tablets.
1,000 Wawasee High School students in Indiana are using the Kuno.
Yet, here you have San Felipe Del Rio District in Texas deploying 1,600 Kuno tablets instead of iPads, Wise County Public Schools (Virginia) rolling out 600 Kunos, and William M. Bass Elementary (Virginia) and Morton District (Illinois) both using about 100 Kunos in their classes.
"This month alone, we're implementing 12,000 Kunos," said JR Gayman, CEO of CurriculumLoft.
Gayman declined to say how many Kunos total are in use today. Asked if it was in the six figures: "I think the number would surprise people," he said.
That the Kuno - the name combines K (for K-12) and the Spanish number for one, 'Uno', to signify one-to-one student:tablet deployments - is around today is a result of luck and entrepreneurial spirit.
CurriculumLoft is a spinoff of CIM Technology Solutions, which was founded in 1983 by JR's parents as an installer of slide projecters and other 80s-era audio-visual equipment to schools. Even today, the Web site www.CIMtechsolutions.com automatically redirects to CIMav.com.
The company dipped its toe by first building a cloud platform for teachers to store and share their e-books and teaching materials. Think of it as DropBox but geared for K-12 teachers. That software morphed into a matching set of applications - the CurriculumLoft Cloud digital repository and the CurriculumLoft Explore 1:1, which manages the synchronization of content onto students' devices, whether it be Kuno, iPad or PC.
Indeed, many schools are using the CurriculumLoft software without the Kuno, said Gayman, citing one school district an hour north of Indianapolis that is deploying it onto 1,800 student laptops today.
Building a Better Android
By late 2010, CurriculumLoft also decided to jump into building its own tablet, spurred on by the iPad's success and the then-high price of Android entrants.
For about a year, Gayman and CurriculumLoft vice-president Josh Whitis went to China to find and then oversee the manufacture of the Kuno. Released in the fall of 2011, the Kuno was similar physically to other Android tablets.
What distinguished it was the software. Not just the CurriculumLoft apps, but also the content filtering built at the Android kernel level that enables schools to comply with governmental rules around childrens' exposure to the Internet.
"Other solutions, especially for consumers, tend to be at the Web browser level. We can filter content at the app level, not just the browser," Whitis said.
The Kuno also includes a number of Mobile Device Management (MDM) features, albeit tailored by CurriculumLoft for the school environment. So students aren't able to easily install or delete apps. Kunos and their content can be logged and tracked by teachers or tech administrators using Active Directory/LDAP. They can also be remotely wiped if the tablets are lost or stolen.
The total solution, including Kuno tablet, rugged aluminum keyboard, and CurriculumLoft Cloud and Explore 1:1, brings the total cost into the $500s. That's more than an entry-level iPad, but it's also a turnkey solution that many schools have found attractive.
"You can't get that with an iPad"
"We've literally had some school districts deploy over 3,000 devices without adding a single IT person," Gayman added. "It's why we're getting the buy-in that we have, as we simplify the IT support and address the needs of every stakeholder."
CurriculumLoft CEO JR Gayman (left) and vice-president Josh Whitis traveled to China for a year while designing the first Kuno.
"We have a complete mobile learning solution for education. You can't get that with an iPad," added Whitis. The iPad "is a great product, but it can be hard to manage. We've had several schools that were in the adoption process for iPad, that changed direction because of us."
According to Gayman, the iPad isn't even the Kuno's biggest competitor. "Lenovo is who we see the most," he said.
"The use of the Kuno was not a hard transition for the students to make at all," wrote Drew Markel, assistant principal for Crothersville Community Schools in Crothersville, Indiana, which deployed 550 Kunos, last year. "We want our students marketable in today's workplace."
The biggest problem with the Kuno in its first year appears to have been the high breakage rate, which Gayman blamed on an inadequately-ruggedized case. To fix that, the latest version of the Kuno comes standard with an aluminum back, thick interior padding, and a plastic molded case that includes a cover to protect against pencils and other sharp objects.
With the re-engineered Kuno, the breakage rate so far is under 1%, Gayman said.
Gayman also touts the Kuno's battery that can be recharged 1,000 times, giving it a lifespan of 3-4 years - a key point for cash-strapped schools.
Gayman says that no schools have complained. "Our goal is to maintain a cheap price point with a single-core model that is durable and sustainable," he said.
And, he says, the Kuno is doing so well that CurriculumLoft is planning to release a version tailored for healthcare and corporate verticals. Ironically, CurriculumLoft is not planning to create a Kuno tailored for universities. "We've found that it is a very different market," Gayman said.
CurriculumLoft's expansion could be jumping the gun. Some educational tech experts think that growth in the K-12 market will come, as in the enterprise, from BYOD, rather than school-funded deployments. That will put the Kuno at a disadvantage vs. $199 consumer tablets like the Google Nexus and the Amazon Kindle Fire, said Corey Thompson, CEO of Naiku, Inc., an educational software firm.
"I think the challenge for these specialized tablets will be to find the schools that are willing to pay a premium in order to have some additional support in addition to already paying for the devices themselves," he said.
Gayman is undaunted. The company has spread its bets, such that if specialized tablets like the Kuno go out of favor, CurriculumLoft can still offer its software for whatever device - smartphone, tablet, PC - schools go with.
"Our goal is to be platform-agnostic," he said. "The future may look very different."
Do you think the future for Android tablets in education will be solutions like the Kuno or consumer-y tablets like the Nexus?