The vibe of Apple's iPad event this week, in which it introduced a new, cheaper model aimed at students and schools, could easily be summed up with that old chestnut "cheap and cheerful." Accompanied by a presentation full of cutesy graphics and text, along with an education price tag of $299, it became clear that Apple is hoping to make the iPad as accessible and student-friendly as possible.
But underneath the chirpy aesthetic and approachable price point is a broader play from Apple. Most obviously, it's an attempt to take on Google and their dominant Chromebook in the important education market. More widely, however, Apple's new iPad is also part of their ongoing attempt to redefine the computer — turning it into something more adaptive, mobile, and tablet-like. The aim is, quite simply, to shape the direction of the computer for the decades ahead.
The most immediate driving force is still Google, though. The company has started to dominate the K-12 market in the U.S., and even Microsoft has overtaken Apple in schools. This is a stark change from the 1990s or early 2000s when then-ailing Apple was nonetheless still synonymous with school computing classes.
Despite Apple's wildly successful run since then, the most obvious barrier to Apple's success in education is cost. The company's computers are notoriously expensive — the cheapest Mac is still a thousand dollars — and even the iPad was until recently over $300 without any additional attachments. Meanwhile functional Chromebooks can be had for less than that, and they have the all important keyboard.
The new iPad is thus a step in the right direction. It's now $299 for educators, and supports the Apple Pencil (though the latter comes at an extra $100). It's a slightly more manageable price point, and the addition of the pencil is a real boon given the tendency of students to scribble on things and learn through writing.
Where Apple is really making a significant push however is in the software. It introduced a Schoolwork app so that students can aggregate handouts and assignments. To foster creativity, the company also debuted Everyone Can Create, a preview software that gives teachers resources for activities on topics like drawing or music. Additionally, the company now has a Classroom app for Mac to help teachers manage students and help them focus on tasks, and a tool to help school administrators manage IDs for students.
It's all explicitly meant to compete with Google, whose advantage hasn't just been cost, but instead its complete solution for educators. What each company is thus competing over is the chance to become the default as classrooms transition from paper-based systems over to digital. By releasing a cheaper iPad and the infrastructure to deploy the tablets, Apple has suddenly made the iPad a much more compelling proposition for schools.
But whenever one talks about companies getting a foothold in education, there is an additional dimension at work: getting students to associate a certain brand with knowledge, productivity, or even cool. Most significantly, Apple's own marketing suggests that the new iPad represents the ideal that "the perfect computer for learning looks nothing like a computer." The point for Apple is to try and assert that the iPad — a hybrid of tablet, laptop, and notepad — is the perfect device going forward.
Positioning the iPad as the future of computing also helps highlight other characteristics of Apple's vision: that computing is mobile and light; that augmented reality means being able to pick up a device and easily point it at things; that sensors for motion, location, and orientation are key; and that battery life has to last at least 10 hours. The perfect computer isn't a laptop or even a Chromebook; according to Apple, it's an iPad.
That's what Apple sees as the future of computing, and it's likely that the iPad and the Mac lines will slowly start to merge over time (just recently it was rumored that Apple was going to let iOS apps run on Macs). And by planting the seed that the iPad and its mobile nature is what an ideal computer should be, Apple is also staking a claim to lead computing into that future.
It's a clever move, in no small part because the appeal extends beyond the education market. The cheaper priced iPad introduced in 2017 saw sales creeping back up again, and with this new bargain-priced iPad at a still manageable $329 for consumers, the device is one more smart move from Apple to shore up its dominant position in the future by offering something that deploys some of the best of the present.
It's a small thing, but if right now the new iPad may merely look cheap and cheerful, as a symbol of the future of the computer, it heralds much bigger things.