20 July 2019
Microsoft is launching a cheaper and lighter tablet computer as it seeks to fight Google Chromebooks and Apple's iPads in the classroom market. Photo: Bloomberg
Microsoft is launching a cheaper and lighter tablet computer as it seeks to fight Google Chromebooks and Apple's iPads in the classroom market. Photo: Bloomberg

Will Microsoft find success in student market with new tablet?

Apple has been a leader in the tablet computer market for a long time following the introduction of the iPad in 2010. However, the launch of Google-backed Chromebooks and Microsoft Surface devices resulted in the market advantage enjoyed by the iPad maker getting eroded in recent years. That prompted Apple to slash the price for entry-level iPad significantly last year.

The price reduction and other measures, however, won’t mean the company can rest assured that inroads into the mass-market and segments such as students will be easy.

That is because competitors are also being quick on their feet and launching new, cheaper products, throwing a fierce and direct challenge to Apple.   

Firing the latest salvo is software giant Microsoft, which unveiled on Tuesday the Surface Go, a much cheaper version of its Surface Pro device.

The new tablet will start at US$399, half the price of the cheapest Surface Pro device. It will come with a 10-inch screen and will run on a full Windows 10 operating system. The Surface Go will be equipped with Intel’s Pentium Gold 4415Y processor with either 4 or 8GB of RAM and 64 or 128GB of storage.

While the Go device is a bargain deal for new users, some tech experts have said the use of 4415Y processor could be frustrating for some customers as the processor speed is only 1.6GHz, compared with iPad’s A10 fusion chip with maximum speed of 2.34GHz. 

However, Microsoft has argued that the processor strikes a balance between power consumption and performance, allowing for battery life of nine hours on a single charge. The company also said that it will strive to optimize the device performance jointly with Intel.

Unlike iPad which is a pure mobile device and running on a mobile operating system, Microsoft’s Surface is a product mixed with desktop operating system and portability. Some would categorize Surface as a tablet computer, while some would treat it as a mobile PC. In effect, the Surface product series has a blurred market positioning.

According to data from research firm IDC, the tablet market overall has declined year-over-year for 14 straight quarters as of end-March. The industry is said to have recorded a 11.7 percent decline in shipments worldwide, to 31.7 million units, in the first quarter this year compared to the same period in 2017.

IDC said the declines were back in the double digits, after single-digit quarterly shipments slump last year, suggesting that things were getting worse. In the three months to March, Apple maintained its No.1 rank, with Samsung, Huawei, Lenovo and Amazon in the next four positions. The top five vendors accounted for 65.6 percent of the market, compared with 61.2 percent last year.

Microsoft failed to figure among the top five in the tablet market, but it is now trying to change the situation by launching a low-cost product. 

A key aim is to make big inroads into the education sector, a market where Google’s Chromebooks — and to a lesser extent, Apple’s iPad — have gained much traction as schools focus more on electronic learning experiences for students.

The company has found encouragement from recent data that pointed to growing acceptance of the Windows devices.  

Last year, Windows devices accounted for 6.5 percent market share in the sub-US$300 category in the education market, which marks their highest market share in the last four years. Every month, more than one million new Windows 10 devices are reportedly being used by students in the US.

OneNote, Microsoft’s note taking application, has grown more than 75 percent in the last year, and more than 18 million new student notebooks have been created in OneNote since the start of the school year, according to reports.

With the launch of the cheaper and lighter Surface Go tablet, it is quite clear that Microsoft is aiming to narrow its gap with Google Chromebook in the campus war.

According to a report from FutureSource Consulting, 59.8 percent of mobile units shipped to the US schools were running Chrome OS by the end of third quarter 2017, up from 57.7 percent in 2016. Windows was only being used on 22.3 percent of machines, while iOS was only on 12.3 percent of machines, down from 14.3 percent in 2016.

The new Surface Go reflects Microsoft’s commitment to the education sector as the company wants to maintain its leadership in the PC operating system in the future.

That said, it will be anything but easy for the firm to dominate the computer operating system market, like it did with Windows in the 1990s and 2000s, as mobile is now dominating the usage.

Microsoft, despite all its endeavors, would itself be well aware of this reality.  

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EJ Insight writer

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