Microsoft Makes Bing Cool for School

Microsoft is accelerating its push into the education market with new initiatives including a school-friendly version of its Bing search engine and discount prices for its Surface RT tablets.

Bing for Schools, which will be available later this year, is an optional Bing experience for K-12 students that will eliminate ads from search results, filter out adult content, and increase privacy protections. It will include educational tips on how to best use the technology at students’ disposal and provide though-provoking questions about the topics they’re researching, Microsoft said.

Microsoft is offering its Surface RT tablet to educational institutions at heavy discounts until Aug. 31. The 32-GB tablet is available to qualified purchasers for US$199 instead of the usual $499.

Microsoft also is planning to hand out free Surface RT tablets to the schools of up to 10,000 educators attending the ISTE 2013 Conference this week.

A large number of school districts nationwide already have adopted the Windows 8 operating system in their classrooms, according to Microsoft.

Better Than the Rest?

Despite its steady push, Microsoft faces stiff competition in the education space. Google Apps such as Mail and Docs are growing in popularity. Traditional textbook publishers are not only dabbling in e-books, but also developing education platforms for students.

Furthermore, the iPad has become a classroom staple in some districts.

“Apple is Microsoft’s biggest competitor in education and has always had a large share of the market,” Ezra Gottheil, principal analyst at Technology Business Research, told the E-Commerce Times.

“Since 2006, when Apple standardized on the Intel platform, allowing Macs to run Windows software when necessary, Apple’s share has grown. Education is the only segment where Apple acts like an enterprise vendor, with a deep account management team and direct delivery of professional services,” he pointed out.

Still, by releasing a search engine tailored just for students, Microsoft is giving itself a window of opportunity to take back some of that market, said Gottheil.

“Bing is a strong search engine, and search tools are not very sticky,” he noted. “It isn’t hard to use a different search engine, and a sanitized engine solves a problem for schools.”

Apple has an edge on most of the competition by virtue of the superior education applications it releases with its devices, said Gottheil.

That said, Microsoft’s Surface RT is a solid device for the classroom, he added. “RT is well-suited for the education market. It is less complex than a Windows Pro PC, but it has the critical Office applications. It is much more keyboard-friendly than Android and iOS, and the keyboard has a trackpad, which is necessary for editing.”

Creating the Ecosystem

The Surface RT and a revamped Bing aren’t enough to attract a new generation of tech consumers, said R Ray Wang, principal analyst and CEO of Constellation Research.

“Microsoft has been a few steps behind everyone for a while, and its new updates sometimes just don’t seem exciting,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“They need a new mission and a new definition of what they stand for — and education could be that,” suggested Wang. “Microsoft needs to create a whole education experience. They need to get younger users accustomed to Bing and even just the different feel of the tiles on Windows 8, so that the K-8 market knows something about what Microsoft is.”

That effort shouldn’t be confined to North America, Wang added. In many worldwide markets, Google’s search marketshare isn’t as dominant as it is in the U.S., meaning Bing could have a better chance at snagging some of it. The same goes for Surface RTs versus iPads.

“In the U.S. and other high wealth areas, the iPad is dominant,” he pointed out, “but in emerging markets, price points on an iPad could be two or three times higher than what Microsoft is offering with the Surface. Plus, they have Office and content available in the cloud. If Microsoft expands these efforts to markets — like Brazil and Indonesia — that are growing rapidly, it could be a real opportunity.”

If Microsoft really wants to capitalize on that market, it’s smart to act now, said John Feland, CEO and founder of Argus Insights. Microsoft needs to get its message out before students and teachers start trickling back to the classrooms.

“Microsoft sits in a sweet spot right now, with devices cheaper than Apple and higher performance in features that matter than Google apps,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“This window will only be open a short time,” predicted Feland, “given how Apple is starting to bow to price pressure as demand slips, and Google is constantly improving Google Apps. The true test will be the back-to-school season and whether Windows 8 tablets and laptops gain on Apple and Android.”

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