Google has conquered American classrooms -- now Microsoft is striking back with cheap PCs and a Minecraft upgrade

MicrosoftA student tries out the Lenovo 300e, a $US299 PC for the classroom that folds into a tablet.
  • While Microsoft dominates the global market for classroom PCs, Google Chrome OS rules the roost in the United States.
  • Microsoft is teaming up with partners including Lenovo to bring a new line of cheap, sub-$US300 PCs to market, to take on Google’s low-cost Chromebooks.
  • Microsoft says that a Windows PC is more capable than a Chromebook – Windows 10 lets you run software like Minecraft or the full version of Microsoft Office.
  • Minecraft is getting a new chemistry module for students.

Google has all but captured the market for American classrooms – analyst firm Futuresource estimates that in the third quarter of 2017, Google’s low-cost Chromebooks accounted for 59.8% of the laptop market for K-12 education, compared to Microsoft Windows devices’ 22.3% share.

But Microsoft would be quick to remind you that this doesn’t tell the whole story: That 22.3% share is up from 18.4% the quarter before, and Microsoft says, up 4% from the same period in 2016. And, worldwide, Windows still reigns supreme: In that same third quarter of 2017, Windows accounted for 66.5% of global K-12 classroom PC shipments.

Now, Microsoft is striking back against Google’s domestic dominance, with a series of announcements designed to make Windows PCs, Microsoft Office 365, and even the Minecraft video game sensation more appealing for education customers at home and abroad.

Chief among those announcements: New laptops for the classroom, priced between $US189 and $US299, manufactured by partners Lenovo and JP. These laptops will run Windows 10 S, a version of the operating system streamlined for better battery life and performance – at the big tradeoff of only being able to install apps from the Microsoft Store.

Microsoft Corporate VP Yusuf Mehdi tells Business Insider that Microsoft is trying to undercut the price advantage of Chromebooks, which often sell for under $US299. But because these PCs can run the full versions of Windows software, including Microsoft Office and Minecraft, they offer “none of the compromises of a Chromebook.”

Mehdi gives Google credit where he believes credit is due: He says that Chromebooks didn’t actually steal any marketshare away from Microsoft, per se; Google just discovered a previously-unmet demand for low-priced laptops and “made it affordable to have a computer in the classroom.” And although Apple has had a strong business in schools, but its products are much more expensive.

Minecraft education editionMicrosoftA new Chemistry Module for Minecraft: Education Edition will let students play around with both atoms and chemical compounds, in the safety of the virtual world.

Now, says Mehdi, the burden is on Microsoft to go out and prove that a Windows machine is more capable than a Chromebook of the same price. Many of the low-cost Windows devices announced on Monday will boast touchscreens and stylus support. Some, will even be compatible with certain virtual reality headsets, a feature schools love, Mehdi adds.

Beyond the hardware, Mehdi highlights updates to the software in the Office 365 for Education suite. For instance, the Microsoft Teams chat tool is getting an iOS and Android app for education users. And Minecraft: Education Edition, which is already widely used to teach programming, is getting a chemistry module for students to perform science experiments in the safety of the virtual world.

According to Futuresource, the time could be right for Microsoft, too: Many schools bought their Chromebooks for students in 2014 and 2015, meaning that they could be looking to do a wide-scale replacement in 2018. That’s an opportunity for Microsoft to convince them to switch to Windows – an opportunity he says the company doesn’t intend to squander.

“We finally feel like we have a strong value proposition,” says Mehdi.

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