On a freezing, cloudless day last January in New York, Apple presented to the world its vision for the future of education. It was a clear-eyed argument for bringing tablets into classrooms, a blueprint for fusing cutting-edge technology with advanced learning techniques.
But the future doesn't get built on no-bid contracts. And slowly, steadily — especially after its announcement of Whispercast today (which is available to Australians) — Amazon has put together a offering that undercuts Apple so dramatically that it might not just beat iPads to the classroom. They should probably be there already.
The problem with Apple's iPad education vision was never one of quality. It was accessibility, affordability, the insane presumption that $500 tablets were a reasonable investment for all but a handful of affluent communities. It was clear even in January that what we were looking at was a someday-proposition, weighed down by caveats and cost. As I wrote then:
Let's be clear; this is indisputably the future. What we saw today is what our classrooms will look like once iPads are far cheaper, once digital textbooks can be handed down as easily as physical ones, once teachers of every subject have several educational material options to choose among. For now though, it's important to remember that "new" and "different" always come at a premium. One that the vast majority of us can't afford.
That's as true today of Apple as it was 10 months ago. But look at how Amazon's offerings have grown since then. A backpack-friendly 7-inch tablet for $US160 (and E-ink technology has progressed enough that you could probably make due with a $US70 entry-level model). A Kindle eTextbook service that's ballooned to over 200,000 titles, with generous return policies and cash-saving rental options. And a platform ubiquity that ensures no kid gets left out, regardless of what device he or she owns.
Amazon had already addressed the affordability and immediacy problems in a way that Apple has yet to. But today's announcement of its Whispercast technology seems to solve problems Apple hadn't even thought of.
Whispercast is a free service that serves as an umbrella for many, many Kindle management features, but most of all it provides the kind of centralised control over devices that are a luxury for businesses and a necessity for schools. Content distribution, social media and purchase blockades, password protection, document sharing; there couldn't be a more teacher-friendly checklist.
Handing out Kindle Fires to every kid in a district still doesn't come cheap. But it's certainly cheaper than iPad — or even the rumoured iPad Mini — and comes with plenty more perks.
There are still challenges to Kindle classrooms of course, just like there will be for any tablet. It's a secondary device, which means you'll still need a computer at home to write term papers on. And while the textbook selection is better — and cheaper — than you'll find on iOS, you still won't find everything you need.
But where Amazon is today in the classroom looks a lot like where Apple wants to be a few years from now. And isn't education all about getting a good head start?