Learning the Alphabet
How schools around the country are turning dead Microsoft PCs into speedy Chromebooks
By Ben Popper | Photography by Amelia Krales
The Ovid-Elsie school district sits an hour west of Flint, Michigan, the city now notorious for being poisoned by its own penny-pinching administrators. The district, which serves roughly 1,600 students, is one of the poorer areas in the state, with a per capita income of just over $15,000. "We’re looking at close to three-quarters of our kids [who] are classified as economically disadvantaged here," said Kris Kirby, the district’s assistant superintendent. So when it came time to find computer equipment for every classroom, Ovid-Elsie had to get creative.
The school was eager to experiment with Google Chromebooks, which have been sweeping the education market. But even those machines cost several hundred dollars each, far too much for Ovid-Elsie to afford one for every student. Dan Davenport, the director of technology for the area schools, had looked into using Chromium, the open-source version of Google’s Chrome operating system, but was stymied by the complexity of supporting a range of different drivers on a mishmash of old computers.
Then one of Davenport’s techs, reading through a forum posting on Chromium, came across a New York City startup called Neverware. The company claimed to have done the legwork of adapting Chromium to work with old PCs. It would help with the task of converting the legacy machines and assist with ongoing support. Davenport had amassed what he lovingly refers to as a junk pile inside a storage room at one of his schools. "We haven’t even gotten rid of what you might consider obsolete machines. So we just have them stacked up." Davenport decided to give Neverware a try.
For the most part, Davenport’s repository consisted of eight- to 10-year-old Dell desktops and laptops he had robbed of RAM and other components to help speed up or repair machines used by teachers. "We are left with these mismatched parts." And yet, when he set the machines up to run Neverware’s Cloud Ready version of Chromium, they outperformed newer Windows machines the school was using. "If you are comparing what we used to run, Chrome and Neverware is a better experience for the end user."
Davenport estimates that to get a new machine and the proper license, it would cost around $400 for each new Windows computer and $200 for each new Chromebook. "With Neverware it’s costing me 50 bucks." The school is now adapting several computer labs to run Neverware chromebooks. "Hey, that’s an interesting model," says Davenport with a chuckle. "Run on your oldest junk for next to no money." The transformation at Ovid-Elsie is striking, but far from unique. It’s just one example of a much larger trend toward cloud computing, a paradigm shift that has radically reshaped the technological landscape at schools across the United States.
Though the sale of personal computers has been in decline over the last four years, in the education market the appetite for computers has actually increased. According to market research firm IDC, K-12 schools in the US spent $7 billion on tablets, desktop, laptop, and two-in-one computers in 2014, with unit sales growing 33 percent from the year prior. For decades, this massive market has been dominated by two players, Apple and Microsoft. Before 2012, Google was a non-entity in the market. But that year it began trying to sell schools on the idea of using Chromebooks: low-cost laptops with limited hardware that relied on the cloud for software and storage. The approach allowed schools to cut both cost and complexity, with Google managing a lot of the IT work — security, storage, and software updates. And it has been a wild success. Microsoft still has a far larger install base, but by 2014 Chromebooks were the best selling device in K-12 schools in the US. In the third quarter of 2015, Google’s Chromebooks started outselling all other devices combined.
Google’s success was driven by what Mike Fisher, an associate director with Futuresource Consulting specializing in educational technology, calls "a perfect storm." The common curriculum, pushed along by the Obama administration, came with federal grants to introduce online assessment, a switch that created a surge of demand for computers in schools. Keyboards were required for testing, making tablets less appealing. And Google’s cloud software was a cut above the competition. "For a district rolling out 30,000 new devices you want to manage from the cloud, [Google] had a much more compelling offering," says Fisher.
The low-cost hardware was easy for school districts with tight budgets to appreciate, but the total savings went beyond the initial purchase. "Schools are all trying to get more hardware into the hands of students, and what they’re discovering is using a Chromebook and the Google infrastructure, the total cost of ownership is 70 percent lower then iOS or Windows," says Ted Brodheim, who oversees education sales for Samsung, and helped forge a partnership with Neverware. "The cost of managing these complex systems that were really designed for very large enterprises, it just doesn’t lend itself to the school environment as well as Chrome does."
While the economic benefits to schools are now clear, Brodheim says many districts are still passing on Chrome because they are afraid of the switching costs. "They are already struggling to maintain their legacy infrastructure [and] can’t afford to replace every device." That’s where Neverware comes in.
Founded in 2009 by Jonathan Hefter, Neverware began as an experiment in his parents' garage, resurrecting old machines and seeing if he could get them to run like new. Hefter had gotten a taste of a technology called desktop virtualization while interning at a Wall Street firm during college. It made personal computers into terminals all powered by a central hub. He was keen to bring this model to schools and nonprofits, and began working on ways to simplify the technology.
By 2012, Neverware was a small, seven-person startup with a few million dollars in venture capital funding and its first pilot programs running in a handful of public schools. It would install a custom server, dubbed the "Juicebox," as the brains of the entire system. The individual computers become "thin clients," essentially dumb screens powered by Neverware’s Juicebox. A workstation could continue to operate, even with its hard drive removed. This allowed schools to make use of clunkers that had long ago stopped performing well enough to be worth handing to students. It also let schools offload a lot of the IT work happening in the background to Neverware, which could handle it remotely in the cloud.
Neverware’s early partners praised the service, but the rapid rise of Chromebooks undercut its offering. True, schools were embracing Neverware’s approach — lightweight machines supported mostly through the cloud — but the startup was no match for the pricing and support Google could offer, much less its suite of educational apps and management tools. "We knew we had to adapt or die," says Hefter. And so the team changed its strategy. It still focused on taking old machines and refurbishing them as cloud-connected computers, but it would put Google’s Chrome operating system at the center of its business.
Google and hardware partners like Lenovo, Acer, Samsung, and Intel, are the only companies authorized to sell official "Chromebooks." But Google maintains an open-source version of its operating system called Chromium, that it encourages developers to build on. Neverware spent 10 months developing a version of Chromium that could handle Google’s newest apps, but would run on drivers from dozens of older, commonly used Windows PCs.
The result was CloudReady, software which Neverware now sells to schools, charging $59 for a lifetime license or $25 per year for schools not ready to commit. Hefter says Neverware has deployments at 250 school districts so far, with hundreds more currently trialling the software. The machines may not technically be "Chromebooks™," but for schools, they function just like them, and the educators and IT staff all used that name.
Neverware’s success at turning old machines into high-performing "Chromebooks" illustrates a great irony of the cloud computing age. Many of the machines that schools had put out to pasture because they were so old and slow are actually far more powerful, in terms of raw hardware, than the brand new Chromebooks™ being brought to market.
Google’s rise in the education market represents an annoyance to Apple, for whom Mac and iPad sales to schools are important, but not essential. For Microsoft, which has definitely lost the smartphone wars, and relies on schools as a critical customer, it’s a far more serious threat. To fight back, Microsoft made an online version of its Office 365 apps free to students, and in October of 2015, it partnered with Lightspeed to roll out a bundle aimed at competing with the cloud-managed suite of Google’s education package. In January of this year, Apple made a similar move by acquiring a startup called LearnSprout, and has built out the cloud management and provisioning capabilities of iOS with a focus on education in its latest update. Microsoft has also worked with partners like HP, Acer, and Lenovo to introduce cloud-based laptops with limited storage that can match up to Chromebooks on cost. But schools may not be the only customers Microsoft needs to worry about, as lightweight cloud-based computing begins to find traction with cost-conscious startups and nonprofits.
Marc Dantona is the head of IT at Kiva, a San Francisco startup that facilitates micro-loans to small business owners in the developing world. As one man trying to manage computers for 110 employees on four different continents, Dantona was attracted to the fact that putting his employees on Chrome meant Google would handle a lot of the background work of security, stability, and storage. Plus, he was on a tight budget. So Dantona decided to look into Neverware. He installed it on a pile of laptops he had long ago discarded as junk. "I’ve got these Lenovo machines, and actually for Chrome they’re Corvettes," he says with delight. "They’ve got four gigs of ram, they’ve got these huge processors in them, and they are battle axes, you can throw these things out of a moving car and get them to work."
Being able to resurrect old hardware on the cheap, and relying on Google’s cloud for apps, syncing, and data storage, makes repairs much simpler. "If you have a $1,500 Macbook Air and you spill your $7 latte on it, not only do I have to deal with protecting the hardware, but it’s actually the time it takes for me to try and get your data off of there. If I could just hand you an identical piece of hardware and tell you to log in and you can go back to work in minutes while your stuff synchronizes?" His voice rises with the impassioned agitation of a 15-year IT veteran: "It seems like a no brainer."
So far, Microsoft’s dominance in the private sector has not been disrupted the way it has in education. Google has 50 million customers using its suite of educations apps, and more than 2 million customers with its Google Apps for Work products. Jessica Reeves, a Google spokeswoman says that while adoption of Chromebooks in business is still relatively low, "it’s definitely gathering speed."
"We have begun to open discussion with folks in the health care and retail space. We are just beginning to start those conversations, but I can’t point to serious traction there," says Samsung’s Brodheim. "My own personal belief is that as they begin to understand Chrome and the benefits, they will make the move, much the same way you saw in education. Five years ago, Chrome had almost no presence. Now it is outselling the other devices. There is an adoption curve."
Kiva’s Dantona agrees. "There’s a perception of the employees that the Chromebooks aren’t good. That’s a struggle." He is incredulous of the way his fellow Silicon Valley startups seem to think of Macbooks as part of a hiring process. "You look at Craigslist or LinkedIn at jobs, and some of the cheesier startups will like say, ‘We give you free food and all the granola bars you could ever dream of and a Macbook Pro." He grunts in disgust, "They see it as a perk. I see it as a waste." He thinks Chromebooks will start at nonprofits and small startups like Kiva, then trickle out. "I don’t think the management knows the cost savings yet. Once the CFOs wake up — especially at big enterprises where the numbers are huge — and realize the cost savings in terms of personnel time, they are going to insist on it."
At the Academy for Software Engineering in New York City, the school’s first graduating class is getting ready to head off to college. Teenagers squirm in their seats as their teacher walks them through a hypothetical scenario about a freshman who isn’t fitting in. He then asks the class to sit down at their computers and write out a plan for an upcoming lesson.
AFSE is focused on equipping its students with high-tech skills that will lead to rewarding careers in the future. But when it comes to managing its own technological infrastructure, it’s just another public school with limited budget and resources. "The Department of Education can offer resources like computers. But they don’t offer any help when it comes to managing our scaling that infrastructure, how to roll out technology in a meaningful way," says Yvonne Williams, the school’s business manager. "We started off 2012 with two sets of Macbooks and no real plan for how we were going to implement technology in a sustainable, scalable way."
After Macbooks, AFSE tried Windows, buying a batch of Lenovo laptops. But the ongoing cost of managing and maintaining those machines convinced the administration to switch to Google Apps. The decision was made much easier when they learned that Neverware could convert their old PCs to run as Chromebooks. "In a one-hour class, it sometimes took the Windows machines 10, 15 minutes just to boot up," says David Yang, the school’s IT manager. "With Chrome, we can minimize the unnecessary functionality in the background and get a lot more computer time in class."
Today Neverware announced a feature it believes will make it even easier for schools and businesses to start experimenting with Google Apps and Chrome. Windows machines running its CloudReady software will now be able to boot into either Chromium or Windows. "We think this is going to make it a lot easier for folks who are ‘Chrome Curious’ to start giving it a try," says Hefter, the company’s CEO. It has also devised a version of its software that will convert old Macs to work with Chromium, although it hasn’t had as much interest in that yet.
Hypothetically the dual boot feature is a great fallback for schools like AFSE, where spotty connectivity means the Chromebooks can’t always connect to the internet. I asked Williams if she thought AFSE might use their old Lenovos as laptops when the internet was down, or if the ongoing connectivity issues had ever made her regret choosing Google. Did she ever think about going to Mac or PC? "It just doesn’t fit with our long-term vision," she said. The amount of IT work the school has been able to shift to Google was "invaluable." And with Neverware, having enough hardware was no longer a serious concern. Plus, said Williams, "All our students are very familiar with Gmail and Google Drive."
Beyond the sales cycles, the cloud management tools, and the billions at stake selling to US schools, the biggest thing Apple and Microsoft stand to lose as Google Chrome marches toward dominance in the education market may be mindshare, the future loyalty of millions of students who work on whatever machine their teachers give them. As the lesson wound down and I prepared to leave, Williams asked who in the class planned to keep using Google Apps once they got to college. Every single hand went up. One aspiring computer science major did take the opportunity to play class clown. "Unless I invent something better!"
Edited by Michael Zelenko