Should Apple Make a Low End Laptop for Children?

Right now Chromebooks and/or Chrome-based apps are taking off in schools.  Chromebooks are a specific tool for a specific context:  schools.  They accomplish several jobs that schools need done:  they're cheap; simple to operate (with no operating system and everything running through the Chrome browser); easy for school administrators to deploy, monitor, and maintain; and can satisfy the essential learning activities that schools need accomplished.  These same qualities are a strength for parents trying to figure out what computer to buy for their children.  In a school and/or young children context, Chromebooks are arguably good enough. For older teens and adults operating outside a school environment, a Chromebook is often too limiting.  For these users, a Chromebook isn't good enough because it doesn't accomplish the full range of jobs that need done (the way a traditional laptop does).

Apple's current low end answer to the Chromebook is the iPad 2, which is still used by many schools.  But the iPad 2 doesn't have a physical keyboard for certain essential school activities like word processing, spreadsheets, and data input.  As a result, for certain core jobs that schools need done the iPad 2 isn't good enough.  Hence the current school-related success of Chromebooks, which are fulfilling an unmet job that needs done (i.e., a cheap laptop that can be easily deployed, monitored, and maintained in schools and homes with young children).

So the question is:  should Apple make a low end laptop for schools (or parents of young children)?

The first point is that Apple has always focused on selling to the end user, because Apple's number one priority has always been the end user experience.  Apple's products target the end user, not the intermediary between Apple and the end user (whether that intermediary is a business, a school administrator, or a parent).

And the deployment, monitoring, and maintenance benefits of Chromebooks used in schools or homes with young children really enhance the school administrator or parent's experience more than the child/end user's experience.  A Chromebook tends to degrade the child/end user's experience, since everything has to run through the Chrome browser.  Browser-based apps work, but stand-alone native apps do not, and this limits choice and the number of jobs a Chromebook can do.

So if Apple deploys a Chromebook equivalent that targets schools and parents, it basically has to subjugate the end user's experience to the needs of the administrator/parent intermediary.  Given Apple's long-standing tradition of prioritizing the end user experience above all else (losing a lot of enterprise business to competitors like HP and Dell as a result), it seems unlikely Apple will do this.  

For the time being, Apple seems content to address Chromebooks, and Chrome-based apps, by making iWork available online.  That way people using Chromebooks can still tap into Apple's ecosystem of productivity tools.  The online version of iWork allows Apple to co-opt the affordability benefits of Chromebooks.  

What Apple may ultimately do is sell a simple, keyboard-based alternative to the iPad 2.  The product would have an integrated physical keyboard with limited onboard memory, essentially functioning as a laptop, and would have full access to thousands of iPad apps in the App Store.  Apple could target young children through different colors and a playful design, emphasizing customization and affordability (similar to what Apple's done with with the iPhone 5c).  This kind of product could be a very appealing Chromebook alternative for schools, parents, children, and the mainstream market, since the App Store permits users to accomplish more jobs that need done than browser-based apps alone. The App Store would allow Apple to sell this type of product at a higher but still affordable price relative to Chromebooks. More importantly, this approach would preserve Apple's historical standing in the education market and keep young users from getting hooked on Chrome-based apps.

The other strategic reason to do this is to avoid the possible low end and/or new market disruption presented by Chromebooks, which are making it easy and affordable for children, less affluent consumers, and less tech-savvy consumers to access and use the Internet and browser-based apps.  Like any low end or new market disruption, Chromebooks are considered functionally inferior to the keyboard-based alternative (traditional laptops), since they can't run native apps/software.  See Concepts page and discussion of Clayton Christensen.  For this reason the conventional wisdom is that companies like Apple can ignore the threat.  

But this is probably a mistake.  Chromebooks are going to get better over time.  And with cloud storage, cloud integration, and browser-based apps, the reality is that many people are overserved by products like the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.  Cloud storage, cloud integration, and browser-based apps are why Chromebooks can be successful even though netbooks from the last decade failed.  Apple can eliminate the low end threat from Chromebooks by offering an affordable, colorful, keyboard-based laptop that targets children and offers full access to the App Store and iPad apps.

The author owns stock shares of Apple.