Google is announcing two new Chromebooks specifically designed for the education market. Chrome OS has been strong in education for some time, outperforming the Mac, iPads, and Windows so much that by some estimates it represents half the market. The company is putting together a slew of Chrome OS-related announcements to try to solidify that lead, but at the center are two Chromebooks that are designed for students.
The first is the Acer Chromebook Spin 11, essentially a convertible variant of the ruggedized Chromebook 11 N7. Internally, the specs are very little changed and unlikely to appeal to consumers — an 11.6-inch touchscreen, Intel Celeron processor, and a couple of storage and RAM options.
What’s new is support for inexpensive Wacom styluses and what Google is calling a “World View Camera,” which is to say a camera that is designed to be used when the Chromebook is in tablet mode, and Google says students will be able to “turn it into a microscope.”
The second is the Asus Chromebook Flip C213, another ruggedized Chromebook with a 360-degree hinge. It has rubber bumpers and “modular construction” so IT departments can replace various pieces if unruly children manage to muck the thing up.
We don’t have prices for either machine, but they should be pretty cheap and available for schools to purchase this spring.
But the precise details of these Chromebooks aren’t really the point for Google. Instead, the point is the overall story it’s trying to tell about Chrome OS in the classroom. Android apps are going to be available on these and all future Chromebooks — and Google says that it has improved the software for managing them. So, for example, a teacher will be able to deploy Android apps for students to use ahead of time so they don’t have to wait for them to download when they log in to their computers.
Google is also pushing the line that it’s working hard to ensure that Android app developers are optimizing their apps for bigger screens. Adobe is going to be releasing updated versions of its Creative Cloud Android apps that are optimized for Chromebooks.
But the app story for Chromebooks isn’t quite as rosy as Google would have you believe. For one thing, Google has to overcome a long and sordid history of Android apps that are little more than blown-up phone apps on big screens — and it’s an open question whether a big education install base will be the push developers need to update their apps. The other problem is that, right now, Android apps on Chrome OS are still technically in beta, which means they can’t be freely resized like other windows and there are noticeable bugs.
Even with those issues, Chromebooks are likely to continue to work well and do well in classrooms. Fundamentally, Chrome OS devices are cheap, durable, and easy for teachers and IT departments to maintain. But if these devices are going to take a bigger run at competitors outside the classroom, Google is going to need to keep making the case that they can be more than web browsers with keyboards attached. You can do a lot more with a web browser than you might think — but probably still not quite as much as you want.