NEW YORK — Microsoft hopes to climb back up to the head of the class as it takes on Google and Apple in the education market.
At a packed event in New York Tuesday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced a new, streamlined education-focused flavor of its venerable operating system called Windows 10 S, which will work on inexpensive computers from other PC manufacturers, as well as Microsoft’s own new Surface Laptop. That machine costs $999 to start, is aimed at the higher-ed crowd, and puts Apple’s rival MacBook Pro ($1299 on up) and MacBook Air ($999 on up) in the crosshairs.
“It’s not like education is new to us. We’ve been there,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told USA TODAY in an interview. “In fact, you could say we grew up with our tools, whether it’s Windows or Office being used by students.”
Microsoft is clearly going after the dominant operating system and laptops for the K-12 market — Google’s Chrome OS and Chromebooks — with its new Windows 10 S.
Microsoft stressed the security aspects of this new iteration of Windows. For example, all the software that runs on the cloud-based Windows 10 S operating system must be downloaded from the Windows Store, including a full version of the Office suite. But unlike with Chromebooks, Windows 10 S machines can run the full desktop versions of such apps. Meanwhile, if a student or educator attempts to download something that’s not from the Windows Store, he or she will receive a security alert warning that the app is not “verified.” If they really need that app, qualified educators and students can switch from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Professional at no cost.
While Surface Laptop is Microsoft’s signature new product for Windows 10 S, various PCs from industry partners—Acer, ASUS, Dell, Fujitsu, HP, Samsung and Toshiba—will also run this latest version of the operating system, starting at $189. Such education PCs also come with a free one year subscription to Minecraft: Education Edition. And educators can run Windows 10 S for free on machines that already have Windows 10 Professional.
Microsoft also pushed education versions of Office 365 with Microsoft Teams, the company’s Slack competitor. Most of the new Windows 10 S machines become available this summer, in advance of the back to school season. You can preorder Surface Laptop today; it will be available June 15, Microsoft says.
The software giant has lagged rivals in the classroom. According to market researcher Futuresource, Microsoft had a 22% share of mobile PC volumes shipped to the U.S. K-12 market last year. Google’s Chromebooks had 58%.
“It’s kind of a general thing,” says Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. “Statistically, there’s a lot of K-12 that are going to Chromebooks…and a lot of people going to college using Macs.” What that means, of course, “is a lot less Windows, even though it’s not a very profitable market, it’s important because those kids grow up to be workers.”
Edison Investment Research analyst Richard Windsor agrees: “Office in education sets up the future. While the education segment is still relatively small when it comes to computing, the opportunity to influence preferences of future content creators makes it a market worth putting considerable effort into.”
Or as tech analyst Jack Gold puts it, Microsoft is playing the “long game.”
During Tuesday’s event, Microsoft also showed off a collaborative learning component for Microsoft Teams, including the ability to engage other students and teachers via video chat.
And the company showed how 3D and mixed reality educational experiences, which have the potential to positively influence learning, in some cases by exploiting the company’s holographic HoloLens headsets and mixed reality head mounted displays. Students will be able to go on immersive virtual field trips without leaving the physical classrooms, as I did during a brief HoloLens demo to the solar system. They might also interact with a 3D chalkboard or periodic table of elements.
“By empowering students to learn together, their educational opportunities get better,” Nadella said.
While Microsoft’s groundbreaking HoloLens augmented reality device costs $3,000 and is only available to developers, a new line of consumer-oriented mixed reality headsets from partners such as Acer and HP will come out this holiday season priced at around $300.
HoloLens is a wearable computer, which partly accounts for its price. The upcoming devices will be tethered by a cable to the computer.
Microsoft is also trying to appeal to students and educators by pushing educational STEM learning through its efforts inside Minecraft, the popular computer game the company acquired with the $2.5 billion acquisition of Mojang in 2014. Minecraft has more than 100 million users worldwide, Microsoft says, and the Education Edition is in use in more than 100 countries. And Microsoft announced Code Builder for the Microsoft: Education Edition, which you can try for free through a trial period. Coding might be integrated into history or geography classrooms, where students could, say, build columns for the Parthenon.
“We think that we can make a real dent in what is perhaps the most important work ahead of us as a society, which is improving educational outcomes more broadly,” Nadella says.
From the hardware perspective,Surface Laptop was the big news. Microsoft claims 14 ½ hours of battery life for Surface Laptop, superior to what its Mac rivals can deliver. The laptop is thin, with a 13.5-inch display, light (2.76 lbs), and it can take advantage of the Surface Pen stylus accessory. It also has speakers beneath the keyboard, with sound emanating under an Alcantara fabric cover (used in sports cars) and the plastic keys.
But most of all Surface Laptop is the showcase for Windows 10 S, which Microsoft is counting on to earn honor grades.
Email: [email protected]; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter.