Is Microsoft’s reign in education coming to an end?

**This piece originally appeared on ClassThink and has been republished with permission**

By Karl Rivers

Microsoft has been a fixture in schools for the last twenty years, but with iPads, Chromebooks, and consumer tastes changing, how much longer do they have at the top?

Recently, I attended a Microsoft seminar covering the latest developments in the Windows eco-system. I know, but please keep reading. As I was listening to the speaker, who looked and sounded remarkably like Michael Caine, my mind drifted onto a topic that must be at the forefront of most school administrator’s minds for some time now — where does Microsoft fit into the modern school?

I spent a good portion of the presentation trying to formulate questions to which the response would have to be “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” but the rest got me thinking, could we rebuild a school without Microsoft software or services?

A Broken Monopoly

When I first started working in schools, almost fourteen years ago, Microsoft was just becoming dominant in the enterprise. Some of my earliest work was transitioning away from systems like Novell and Lotus, and moving to Windows NT and Microsoft Office. Back then we were sowing the seeds for Microsoft’s stranglehold on schools that still, generally speaking, holds today.

Most secondary schools run an Microsoft Exchange, store documents in Windows file shares, store user accounts in Active Directory, and use Microsoft Office on the desktop. But Microsoft’s complete failure to recognize the importance of mobile technology early enough has broken the mind share allowed then to reach this monopoly. A generation of teachers and students are now entering their educational careers without Microsoft.

In around 2005 I attempted to encourage a number of teachers to begin experimenting with Open Office. If you haven’t used it, Open Office is a suite of open source office applications that replicates Microsoft’s alternative. Even then we recognized the exorbitant financial toll Microsoft Office was having on our IT budget and we wanted to, if not replace Microsoft’s suite of applications, at least lessen its control on the curriculum.

The project failed completely. Not because the feature sets of the suites were not comparable, but simply because outside of the IT department very few had the time or desire to become familiar with the new system. For teachers the financial saving that Open Office represented simply didn’t present enough of a reason to switch.

While we’re talking about budgets, you’ve likely noticed the drastically reduced cost of volume licensing Microsoft software in recent years. If this isn’t an acknowledgement of increased competition, I don’t know what is.

Microsoft’s Lack of Vision

Microsoft, for all it’s power in the market, hasn’t been known for its vision. They completely missed the importance of the Internet, and then spent a few years scrabbling around trying to implement their own proprietary alternative.  Then along came the iPad. It didn’t matter that they had had almost three years of the iPhone to get their stuff together, Microsoft was left completely unprepared. The company were caught with their drawbridge down and Apple proudly strolled across.

But it’s not just the shift to mobile technology that is the most important aspect of the mobile technology revolution. The iPad cleared the way for others to follow. The Open Office experiment proved that we needed more than just an equivalent to Windows or Office, we needed something of the magnitude of the iPad to stomp a path right through Redmond. Had the iPad not existed the Chromebook would have sunk into oblivion and Android would have been a consumer only product.

With the iPad Apple succeeded in opening the eyes of consumers– and by extension those of our teachers and students — to alternatives to Microsoft software. The iPad provided the sexy hardware, the flash but simple operating system, and a new way to deliver software in a way that was compelling enough to change the habits of IT users.

Apple’s greatest legacy isn’t the touch screen or the app store, it’s that our users are no longer fearful if their computer doesn’t have a Start button.

Does Microsoft Have a Place in The School of The Future?

So, where are we now? The presentation I sat through this morning was brilliant…for me as an experienced network administrator. The software shown provided exactly the level of control I want, and enough knobs and buttons to push to keep me in network heaven for the foreseeable future. Windows Server 2012, and System Center 2012 are brilliant products, but they’re also extremely complex and its for this reason that only the largest of schools will ever implement them.

While Google and Apple are moving to simplify device management, Microsoft is strongly moving in the opposite direction. Microsoft has been explicit that they consider PowerShell — Windows 2012’s all encompassing command-line interface — to be the standard method of control for network administrators. The GUI still exists, but Microsoft doesn’t expect “true administrators” to use it.

Likewise, imaging Windows is “no longer supported.” Going forward Microsoft will only support systems which have been consumer installed, or set up using the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT). If they wanted to alienate a huge section of the education market, this is how to do it.

Features like the ability to create an iSCSI SAN managed by Windows, add an iPad to a domain, control network access with NPS, Work Folders, Remote Apps web feed, session based RDP are all great, but Microsoft seems to be headed off down a road alone while the competition can only look back with confusion. In the business world with huge corporate networks Microsoft makes complete sense, but for schools with limited budgets and personnel the implementation has to be questioned.

Schools want low cost, low maintenance, flexible devices. They want devices that are instant-on, don’t slow down, and are quick to log in to. They want iPads, Chromebooks, and smartphones, not a complex server infrastructure. The Microsoft representative, when asked about the amount of time required to manage System Center 2012 said, “it’s a full time job.” Unless you are an administrator responsible for multiple sites and thousands of desktops this makes no sense.

Microsoft Has Lost its Power

When Microsoft released a Remote Desktop app for iOS and Android a few weeks ago many saw it as sign that the company was finally opening up to new mobile platforms. Microsoft makes the argument that they are transitioning into a services company, rather than a software company. But I would argue that they had to release these apps because the market has reached a tipping point.

Previously Microsoft could use their weight in the market to bolster or weaken a product. When Microsoft had incentive to support Mac they did so by releasing Internet Explorer for Apple’s platform. When they no longer wanted to support Mac they pulled the software.

Microsoft releasing RDP apps for competing mobile operating systems is acknowledgement that failure to do so would make their server infrastructure and software ecosystem irrelevant to many users. The power has shifted. Where previously users would look for a platform on which to run Microsoft Office, now they will instead look for an alternative to Office.

Where once Microsoft Office was a standard application, we’re now seeing it relegated to specialist software. In the same way that Adobe Photoshop is only installed where it’s required, Microsoft Office will only be installed for specific use cases.

Services Not Software

I will admit I was slightly skeptical when we installed our first set of Chromebooks last September, but the opinion of teachers and students alike has been overwhelmingly positive. Yes, if I spent the time I could get a similar setup with Windows 8 laptops. I could pour hours into Microsoft deployments and System Center 2012, but why should I when I can get the desired result with an externally managed service? I just connect my devices and go.

Unless you are running a large network across multiple sites with thousands of desktops I see little reason to recommend a Microsoft infrastructure. In fact, many schools are now ripping out their ICT suites and replacing them with mobile devices for use across the curriculum, and they’re not doing it with Windows.

There have been many articles this week about why Microsoft is so scared of Chromebooks that they feel forced to produce what are essentially political smear adverts to slight Google’s laptop. The truth is that Microsoft should be scared of Chromebooks. Google is getting in at the grassroots. They’re creating a generation of students who may never use a single piece of Microsoft software.

Microsoft is shifting to become a services company. Office 365, is a great example of this. The problem Microsoft has is that they have lost their anchor in the market through which to funnel users to their online services. There are now competing products like Google Apps which provide similar services and many schools are making the switch. How much of the internal infrastructure of a school can Microsoft hold onto in this shift is yet to be seen.

So, I’m left with the thought, if we had to start from scratch, if we threw everything away and began again, how much of our school infrastructure would we build with Microsoft software? The answer, I think, is very little. How about you?

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Karl is an award winning school Network Manager, IT Lead Professional for Bedfordshire Borough Council, and is an ICT Across the Curriculum Co-ordinator based near London, England. He has been working in education for more than ten years and founded ClassThink in 2013 to share technology best practice with other schools. In 2014 he won the NAACE Impact Award for support services in schools, and writes edtech articles for Education Executive Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @karlrivers.

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