Which Device Will Win the Tablet Battle?

| May 8, 2012 | 17 Comments
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By Frank Catalano

The future of tablets in our schools may not be coming from Cupertino. Or even the U.S.

Despite the craze around Apple’s iPad, it’s only been two years since the device was introduced, and that may not be enough time to separate fad from trend over the long term in education. And while the iPad’s presence – and promotion by the Apple faithful since its launch in 2010 – is hard to ignore, a winning tablet trend hasn’t been clearly established on a global basis.

It’s certainly true that tablets are on the upswing in K-12 schools and higher education. There’s no shortage of U.S. numbers to cite. Going beyond statistics of tablet penetration (in one case, most recently, 25% of college students and 17% of college seniors), it’s in the composition of purchases where the data can get interesting. For example, a Harris Interactive/Pearson Foundation survey released in March gave iPads the largest share among college students (at 63%), followed by the Kindle Fire (26%) and the Samsung Galaxy Tab (15%).

As U.S. education appears to be moving toward tablets in pockets here and there, other countries’ education officials are embracing them in bulk.

Another way to read those figures: It’s roughly a 60/40 split between Apple’s iOS operating system and all flavors of Android devices (“flavors” might be the right word, as Android has named its more recent OS versions Ice Cream Sandwich and Gingerbread). These relative rankings among popular Android tablets in education mirror the broader U.S. consumer market.

But the scope of some big decisions made by international government agencies – and the price of non-U.S. devices – could upset the apple cart.

Consider India. Last fall saw the launch of the highly touted US$50 Aakash Android tablet for education (subsidized to US$35). That initiative subsequently stumbled following reports the first models built by the UK firm DataWind were sluggish and fragile. The government has since decided to press ahead with a new version with improved specifications.

Yet the overwhelming interest in what was supposed to be a first run of 100,000 tablets has spurred the growth of a handful of new education-focused competitors. They’ve developed tablets that are more expensive, but apparently more capable: the US$100 ATab, US$150 HCL MeTab, and, perhaps most interesting, the US$125 Funbook – interesting in that manufacturer Micromax’s education content partner for the Funbook is the international educational publishing giant Pearson. All of these relatively inexpensive devices run on Android.

Another international initiative of note: One Laptop Per Child’s XO-3, a projected $100 tablet, due this year, with prototypes shown at January’s Consumer Electronics Show. Designed for students in developing countries, it has OLPC’s now-signature hand crank (for when regular power isn’t available) and it, too, runs on Android (or OLPC’s own Sugar OS).


No matter how cheap, having hardware isn’t enough if there isn’t a market. Yet as rapidly as U.S. education appears to be moving toward tablets in a decentralized manner, in pockets here and there, other countries’ education officials are embracing them in bulk.

Thailand’s Ministry of Education has announced plans to provide tablets for all of its first-grade students – 900,000 of them. As part of its Digital Education Revolution program, Australia has provided every 9th-through-12th grade student with either a laptop or a tablet this year – and due to purchases of lower-cost tablets, the number of devices actually outnumber students.

And though doubts have been expressed about providing tablets for the youngest grades, South Korea is still moving ahead with plans to replace K-12 textbooks with tablets starting in 2014.

Regardless of where in the world they’re deployed, tablets present key issues that must be dealt with: Settling on appropriate educational content for a full curriculum, whether to attach a keyboard, and the ideal tablet screen size. While many inexpensive tablets are 7 inches, more expensive models such as the iPad are 10 inches – and that’s the minimum size required, for example, for using tablets for the forthcoming Common Core assessments. Plus, of course, there are the traditional concerns that apply to any technology in education, such as teacher training, using the tech effectively for learning, and cost.

Considering the speed of tech adoption and growth in the past few years, it’s clear that tablets will pervade the education landscape. But it’s too early to foretell which devices, or even operating systems, will last or turn out to be fads.

Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He tweets @FrankCatalano, consults as Intrinsic Strategy, and writes the regular Practical Nerd column for GeekWire.

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  • Vikram

    In a country like india, affordability is a big factor in dissemination of technology. The Ubislate series of tablets launched by Datawind are the only one’s to come at a price so low that even a rickshaw puller can afford it. The tablet has an educational ecosystem built around it.This ensures effective learning for a person who has never accessed a computer device before. The multilanguage support in it is just right in a country of such diversity as India.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      And efforts appear to be underway to see if some of the tablets, developed for one country, can be brought to the U.S.or other countries — DataWind’s coverage certainly implies it. 

      As you note, the power of any tablet is the software/content that’s accessible through it. And many of the tablets noted in the analysis have such an ecosystem, some at additional cost.

  • http://www.thefutureofpublishing.com/ Thad McIlroy

    I couldn’t agree more: “It’s too early to foretell which devices, or even operating systems, will last or turn out to be fads.” To read most media accounts, you’d think this was already a done deal. Five years from now we’ll be past the fad stage, but we’ll still be learning how best to balance technology in the classroom, particularly for younger learners.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      And I’m certainly not dissing the iPad or its capabilities. It’s just that … two years is only two years. In the short-term, the iPad appears to be a hit in pilots and scattered full implementations. But it’s not pervasive, and hits need to have staying power over time to be a true trend.

  • Anonymous

    Why should there be a single tablet?

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Good point. As in personal computers, no one operating system needs to definitively “win.” Early on, it was ProDOS (Apple II series) and MS-DOS (early IBM compatibles); today, it’s OSX (Mac) and Windows 7. 

      There’s certainly room for both Android and iOS in tablets to both have healthy market share — and the possibility that one of any top two can be displaced by a newcomer. But many reports implying there’s already a single clear “winner” don’t hold water, on a global scale.

  • Beyondtool

    I can assure you that devices do not outnumber students in Australia. There was limited funding for a cheap provider of subpar laptops, although schools could opt to fund a more expensive alternative most public schools didnt. In Queensland there is a generalised active hostility towards iPads as they don’t provide the ability to use PC software, there were not part of the device agreement.

    The push is for 1:1 ratio but without the IT support staff this is rapidly fallling apart in many schools.

    iPads are secure, reliable, always on, great battery life, cheaper software and easy to support. It’s only a matter of time before every student has one as the price is rapidly becoming more affordable.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      The article (and other coverage I’ve seen from Australia) note the device numbers are in grades 9-12, in part because of the lower purchase price for tablets versus laptops. So I defer to the sources cited.

      However, even so, I agree that maintenance and support is a critical expense in these efforts — as is proper training for teachers.

  • http://www.bradfields.com/ Wleebaird73

    As an Educational Technologist for many years, I’ve seen products enter into the market that claimed to be the “one” for Education. Palm Pilots were a heaven sent and were viewed as the future of Educational Technology during its early life.  But, as a Sales representative who worked in the industry, I noted one simple conceptual flaw, the Palm OS was designed for the consumer market.  Two years ago, when the iPad entered into the market, and started making some “in roads” into the K-12 segment, I noted a common theme between Palm and iPad’s. Both were designed for the general consumer market, not specifically designed for K-12 education.  Though the iPad CAN be a GREAT educational tool, and will likely become increasingly stronger over the years to come, it is NOT the “one” in education just like Palm is not. 
    Furthermore, last Fall, a tablet device WAS introduced into the K-12 market that was specifically built to compliment K-12 educators and there existing curriculum and style of instruction.  The product is KUNO.  I would recommend that you check out MyKUNO.com I would happily show the solution to anyone that desires in Illinois.  Please feel free to respond to this posting and we can connect. It is a phenomenal solution that truly addresses K-12 needs and wasn’t built for main stream consumer market.
    Enjoy looking into it! I’m sure you’ll be impressed!

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      There are a number of education market-only tablet devices from a lot of manufacturers, including several from companies known mostly for interactive white boards. But many (not all) of these are more limited in functionality — that is, they can’t run apps beyond the proprietary software that comes with them. In the U.S., none has the education mind share, and possibly edu market share, of consumer Android or iOS tablets to this point. 

      Globally, there seems to be an interest in mixing a general-purpose OS with apps that are focused on education and a device priced for schools or for consumers who want to use it for education. It’s an equation of usefulness = device + OS + appropriate software/content.

      Finally, I’d gently note that if one wants to prospect through responses to a post, perhaps it shouldn’t be to a post that someone else wrote.

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  • EducatingMom

    I think that there is a lot better and cheaper than the iPad, for example, Educational Resources’ LearnPad is an award winning solution.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      In the ten months since this piece was written, many new tablets have come to market. One high-profile Android addition is the Amplify Tablet, which comes bundled with instructional and management software. There’s no shortage of choices.

      • EducatingMom

        I agree, there is no shortage, however I would be more inclined to trust someone who actually has Educational experience. Educational Resources have been around since 1985 and their LearnPad solution won BETT Best Digital Device 2013.

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

          Not a surprising perspective, considering that your comments posted on a number of sites have all promoted the LearnPad.

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