The idea that Google is better positioned than Apple to impact global higher education may seem counterintuitive.
How many of you are reading this post on an Apple device? Okay, how many on a Google device?
I'm writing this post on a 15 inch MacBook Pro. The software that I'm writing this post is from Apple (TextEdit). Today I took notes and tested some things on an iPad. I read e-mail throughout the day on my iPhone. Tonight I'll publish this post on Safari. My daughter's are sitting near me, doing homework on a 13 MacBook Pro (my 9th grader) and an older family iMac (my 7th grader). Before going to bed I'll listen to an audiobook on my iPod Nano.
So why do I think that Google, and not Apple, is a company with most potential to improve, change, and disrupt worldwide postsecondary education?
1. The Basic Business Model: Google is an advertising company. Apple makes money from hardware. Apple is too smart a company to abandon the premium hardware market. High margins, however, do not equal educational impact. Google can afford, and is actually motivated, to drive down the hardware costs of Google machines as low as possible. Google does not need to make money on Chromebooks, and will eventually (I believe) expand the hardware line to include branded tablets, e-readers and phones. (My bet is for Google to buy an OEM outright - the best way I know to invest some of the $47 billion that Google has in the bank). What Google wants is for people to spend time in the Google ecosystem so they can be receive targeted online advertising. I think we underestimate the potential of Chromebooks and Android devices to rapidly take-off - particularly in the emerging economies. Is it really that hard to envision the majority of post-secondary students in emerging economies attending online, as a opposed to campus-based, institutions of higher learning? How strongly could the growth of online enrollment in Asia, Africa and South America be accelerated by Google pushing down the price for hardware (laptops, tablets, phones)?
2. The Emerging Global Learner: The 21st century education story will be written in the emerging economies. Google can push down the price of commodity hardware (laptops, tablets, phones, readers), getting them in the hands of tomorrow's consumers. Any education platform or service that is embedded or accessible from with the Google ecosystem has enormous worldwide potential for growth. Someone, maybe Google, is going to figure out how to monetize online classes with advertising (and data gathering), just as communication (Gmail) and productivity (Google Docs) has been monetized by advertising. Education is a very sticky service. For this transition to occur Google does not need to be the provider of the education (although I think Google should experiment in this world). Google hardware, and perhaps Google services, only need to be the conduit for tomorrow's virtual universities. If I ran Google I'd move the whole education team to Mumbai - with big offices in Shanghai, Nairobi, and Sao Paulo.
3. The Browser: The 3rd reason is the simplest and most obvious reason why Google and not Apple has the potential to be the most important education company of the 21st century. Education services delivered through the browser are available to any device with a network connection. Apps you say? Sure…apps are great. But browser based apps are affordable to produce (and therefore buy), as they avoid the need to code for every device. The open standards and interoperability of the Internet will win out in the long run over the closed (but wonderful) Apple iOS and OS X ecosystems. The Web will be the platform of choice, and the platform of learning, for the world's next generation of first-time college students (in all those emerging economies). Google's business is built around the the browser. What seems chaotic and under-baked now (particularly when it comes to Google's hardware efforts) will seem foundational when looked back upon with global eyes 20 years hence.
The risk for Google is that the leadership of the company will not recognize the global education potential, and fail to invest in the people, products, and services necessary to build whatever comes next in global higher ed.