Google's low-cost Chromebook laptops have for the first time overtaken Apple's iPads in sales to U.S. schools.
New, unpublished sales figures for the U.S. education market for tablets and PCs from IDC show that vendors selling Chromebooks shipped a total of 715,000 units to U.S. schools, compared with 702,000 iPad's sold by Apple.
The lead, though slim, is significant because it highlights the growing popularity of Chromebooks among schools, said IDC analyst Rajani Singh. It is a trend that began in late 2012 and has been gaining momentum ever since.
Chromebooks weren't particularly successful when they were first launched in late 2011. In fact, they were largely a non-factor in U.S. schools till late 2012 when Samsung started pitching the device at them, followed in 2013 by HP and Dell, Singh said.
"Samsung started the show. Then HP and Dell also began capturing market share. What was interesting in the last two quarters was that Acer too became very aggressive," about selling to U.S. schools, Singh noted.
Cumulatively, the sales of Chromebooks from such vendors topped Apple's iPad sales to schools. But the numbers are not fully indicative of the overall market strength of the two technologies, the IDC analyst said.
Google's Chromebook sales to schools last quarter accounted for 75 percent of its total Chromebook sales in the United States, while Apple's iPad sales to schools represents just 20 percent of overall sales of the device in the United States, she said.
In 2013, tablets based on Apple's iOS operating system also accounted for 29.5 percent of all new product shipments to the U.S. education market, compared with 8.8 percent for Chromebooks. Notebooks and laptop computers accounted for 30.9 percent of all products shipped to the education sector while desktop computers represented 27.7 percent.
Several factors have contributed to the growing popularity of Chromebooks within schools, a segment that has been a strong suit for Apple for years.
One big factor is price. At starting prices ranging from $159 to $199, Chromebooks are more economical to purchase than an iPad with comparable functions. "Price is certainly a big factor. The education sector is highly, highly price-sensitive," Singh noted.
Chromebooks are also fairly simple to manage, a huge plus for cash-strapped schools. Technologies like Google's Web-based management console for Chromebooks have made the devices easy to set up and manage for school administrators.
Using the console, schools, for instance, can configure and push down a standard image for the devices or customize and change settings across multiple units relatively easily, the IDC analyst said.
Integrated keyboards are also another big reason many schools appear to be choosing the Chromebook over the iPad, Singh said. While touch-screen devices may be suitable for younger students, older ones typically require a keyboard for many of the tasks they are expected to perform at school.
The $4.2 billion U.S. education segment is an important market for technology vendors. It has remained a hot spot for sales even as other market segments have witnessed lackluster sales over the past year or so.
In 2013, for instance, the sale of client devices, like Chromebooks and iPads, to the education sector grew by 14.4 percent from the previous year even as the overall PC market reported a 3.4 percent decline in sales, according to IDC.
Until recently, the tablet category has driven a lot of the momentum in the education market segment market and attracted a growing number of vendors in the process. But with signs of an overall slump in tablet sales in recent months, the last quarter could well mark a turning point for the iPad in U.S. schools.