Is there an Educational Tombstone for Laptops in 2012?

GUEST COLUMN | by Kris Peterson

Did Apple kill the laptop in education in a mere two years? At first blush this statement seems overly dramatic, but a closer look reveals some potentially fatal news for the laptops in schools. The debut of the iPad was heralded as a revolutionary tool for education, but in many ways it fell short of the hype in the early days. A now perfect storm is forming to render the laptops obsolete in the education world. In the fourth quarter of 2011, there were more iPads sold than any other PC manufacturer sold of their entire PC line worldwide—a staggering statistic that reveals a lot in how people are viewing the devices they want to use in their daily lives.

Something that has not changed since the iPad went on sale is Apple’s grip on controlling the experience for the end user. This has brought much angst in the technical community, but it provides a stable and simple-to-use platform for schools. Laptops in students’ hands are heavy on IT support and with ever-tighter budgets an approach to decrease the need for this is a fast-paced trend. The iPad leaves little maintenance and a sublime ease of use that even the youngest students can quickly pickup.

The reality of the web experience has become paramount with the shift from traditional software to cloud-based applications. Tim Cook’s keynote speech about the third-generation iPad revealed that users with access to multiple devices chose the iPad overwhelmingly to view the web. With HTML5, these technologies have finally allowed for a more robust experience for education applications. An initial advantage of the laptop was the support of Flash with so many web experiences deriving from this technology. But it may not have been Apple that devastated Adobe Flash, but Microsoft itself. A bold and outrageous statement by Steve Jobs was declared back in 2010,

“New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.”

Apple’s lack of support started a firestorm in the technology world and may have finally forced Adobe’s hand when even Microsoft chose a different direction. Similar to Apple, Microsoft appears to be abandoning plug-ins contained within their Internet Explorer 10 browser with the new “metro” style Windows 8 interface. Microsoft is positioning Windows 8 to be the all-in-one operating system for smartphones/tablets and PC’s. Android was quick to market Flash as an exclusive feature, one that iOS users were sorely missing, but Adobe finally folded under the pressure and stated that Flash will no longer be adapted for browsers on new mobile devices or new OS versions. In a post on the Adobe blog, company vice-president Danny Winokur said,

“Flash has enabled the Web’s richest content for a decade. However, HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively. This makes HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms.”

The Achilles heel of the iPad from the beginning has been the difficulty of input compared to the laptop. You could use a wireless keyboard, but this really takes the tablet out of its element and gives you two pieces of equipment to port around that makes it questionable to compare it as an advantage to a laptop.  A revolutionary product has debuted to counter this trouble.  A startup out of Redmond called Touchfire has created the perfect keyboard overlay that gives you the tactile feel of the keyboard, yet making it almost nonexistent with the ability to roll up and slide off the iPad. An education development company, “Typing Agent”, is the first to offer an online version of their keyboarding tutor for schools that is compatible with the iPad. With the combination of a Touchfire and Typing Agent, a student can seamlessly move from a lab to an iPad to continue their typing.  The program also has begun to replace much of their Flash-based typing games with HTML5 compatible versions that are iPad friendly. Typing Agent like many other education platforms have taken to the cloud to deliver services that take the burden off of IT support.

One of the strongest arguments to leave textbooks behind can be found in the iPad and not the laptop. Laptop screens strain eyes and their interaction with text is not nearly as pleasurable as kicking your feet up on the couch and touching, pinching, and flipping your way through a book. An important announcement by apple in January 2012 was iBooks 2, a digital-textbook initiative that will let publishers create interactive titles. Apple showed how the textbooks, which will run on the iPad, can increase student interest through video and 3D images. Although this shift will not happen overnight, the iPad will begin to start the process of dust beginning to gather on more and more textbooks around the country.

There has always been the issue of a centrally controlled management with IT professionals. These lines have shifted with so many services moving to the cloud. IT teams that have been waiting for the tile-based Windows 8 on tablets got a surprise this year. Microsoft made an announcement that ARM-based tablets would not be supported in Active Directory. With no Active Directory policy integration, the choice becomes that much simpler with the iPad that also does not have a central policy control.

Powerful and cheap are now in the same conversations with the iPad. With a quad-core graphics processor and a price-tag of $499 there is a difficult argument that a Netbook is cheaper when considering IT costs and that most work needed to be done in schools can be accomplished with the iPad’s current specs. Steve Jobs got it right when he introduced a simple, powerful, and engaging experience for grade school students and teachers alike. The popularity of the iPad surprised everyone with such a rapid ascent to prominence in our daily lives. The post-PC era may have finally arrived at schools in 2012.


Kris Peterson is the School Technology Coordinator at Northshore Christian Academy in Everett, Wash., close to the Everett Boeing plant and overlooking Puget Sound.  Write to:

  • dthornburg


    As an avid tablet supporter and user, I disagree with the idea that laptops are dead. We are a LONG way from tablets doing what needs to be done for kids. electronic textbooks merely change the medium for a failed concept. When Apple banned Scratch from the iPad, they said that this was NOT to be a tool for creative work by students. If they can’t write their own programs, they are missing the opportunity to do things of lasting value. The iPad was a glorious step backwards in terms of capabilities.

  • Carl Malartre (@Malartre)


    Hi Kris, what do you think of the Chromebooks? It seems like a good solution to me.

    Also, this sentence sounds cheezy to me: “Apple showed how the textbooks, which will run on the iPad, can increase student interest through video and 3D images.”

    These posts are insightful on that subject:

    On iBooks 2 And iBooks Author

    It’s Called iBooks Author, Not iMathTextbooks Author, And The Trouble That Results

    @dthornburg: I can’t find a reference that Apple said that. Any links to back that up? From my understanding they banned the player (not the edition tool) because they wanted to control the API of the platform.

    Carl Malartre

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