Why Apple’s iPad Can’t Succeed in Schools (Yet)

Apple (s aapl) has started making the iPad available on its online education store in packs of 10 with an appallingly–stingy discount of only $20 per iPad. If Apple wants to start a computing revolution with the iPad, it absolutely must get the device into schools. But in order to do that, it’s going to have to try a lot harder, and generous discounts are the easiest problem to solve. There are much bigger hurdles standing in the way.

Let’s start with costs alone. Assume a school wants to buy an iPad for each of its students. Assume the school is small with only 300 children enrolled. Assume also that the school wants to buy the cheapest iPad without AppleCare. At a little more than $450 per iPad, that’s a cost of almost $144,000. I imagine the average state-funded school enjoys less than half that in its annual I.T. budget.

“Aha!” you might argue, “Many schools in underprivileged areas get subsidies from the state and provide laptops for their pupils.”

And, of course, you’d be right. Many schools do provide their students with free or ‘nearly-free’ laptops. But not decent laptops. We’re talking cheap, disposable netbooks that cost far less to insure against loss or damage. (Let’s be realistic – the younger the student, the greater the chance of laptop-death!)

No Competition

I graduated from High School back in the early 90s, and even then my school was considered ahead of the curve when it came to the adoption of computer technology in class. Even so, there were no Macs in my school. They were just too expensive. Here in the UK, the fierce battle in the 1980’s between Acorn, Sinclair, Atari, Amstrad and Commodore meant that there were many perfectly capable, cheap microcomputers available to schools. The Mac was superior to those machines in almost every way, but it couldn’t compete on price.

It has been 16 years since I graduated from high school. And while I’m happy to report that my old school now has iMacs in most classrooms, sadly they only run Windows XP.

The reason for this comes down to two simple factors; Cost, and What’s Best for the Kids. It seems more educational titles are available at lower prices on Windows than on Mac OS X. And, outside school, the kids encounter more Windows PCs than Macs.

So I look at the upcoming iPad and, even though I can see the potential it offers to schoolchildren (and the wider education market), I can’t help but wonder if it has any real chance of making a dent at this time. HP’s (s hpc) upcoming slate PC has more chance of being adopted by my old school simply because it works with all their existing software and runs Windows — the platform the school believes the pupils are better served knowing, rather than Mac OS X, which they have concluded is just too obscure and “specialist.”

And as though these fiduciary and policy-driven decisions aren’t bad enough, there’s another glaring challenge to getting the iPad widely accepted in schools; at the end of the day, it’s just not a book.

Delicate Issues

You see, tablets-as-books is a great idea until the battery dies, and then the student has no textbook and no computer. She will have to plug-in to a power outlet if she wants either of those things back. But consider the delicate health and safety issues associated with cable-safety in a classroom environment. Not to mention the maintenance costs (that’s a lot of power outlets being used more than ever before) and don’t forget the school will suddenly incur higher energy bills. Say what you will about a paper-textbook, at least it doesn’t need plugging-in.

And then there’s the issue of damage. What happens if an iPad screen is cracked? A damaged book cover doesn’t render the book’s contents inaccessible, nor is it likely to slice into fingers. Plus, the cost of a replacement book is trivial. Remind me how much the cheapest iPad is?

Oh, and let’s not forgot that Apple isn’t perfect. Remember when the iPhone OS was updated to 3.1 in September last year? I wrote about it here, and the comments quickly ran to over 100. iPhones everywhere were freezing, crashing, and generally just refusing to work, and all as a result of an official update from Apple itself!

What happens when Apple does the same thing with the iPad? Even the most diligent students who take the greatest of care with their always-charged-in-time-for-class iPads will suffer if an update from Apple proves flaky.

And, finally, there’s the matter of crime. No one ever wanted to rob a kid from my school. The only thing we ever carried in our bags was biology books and the occasional Thundercats pencil case. But what if my school handed-out iPads to its pupils? Overnight, the school uniform would become an advertisement to any would-be criminal; “mug this kid – expensive computer on-board.”

I’d dearly love to see all school kids and college students everywhere take-up iPads as their favorite learning tools. Sadly, I just don’t see how that can happen as long as they remain significantly more expensive than textbooks, more sophisticated than simple e-book readers and less resilient than the existing, proven toolset — traditional, dead-tree textbooks.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Forecast: Tablet App Sales To Hit $8B by 2015