It could be argued that Apple's business has been built on education and education is still a key market for the company. The iPad, iPod Touch, and iPhone are the current hot products for Apple and in general are well received in the education market. However no product stays at the top in education forever and Google attacking Apple's education pond is a much bigger problem than Google coming out with an arguably over-priced Chromebook (The Pixel).
I come at this as someone who spent about half of my nearly two decades at Apple selling to the education market. Back in the last days of the Apple II, I made one of the largest single purchase order sales of Apple IIes. It put an Apple IIe in every fifth grade classroom in Nova Scotia. I went on to be higher education account executive of the year in 1992 and then led Apple's most successful higher education team over the five years that Apple treated higher education as a separate market.
I got ripped out of higher education during one of Apple's many reorganizations in the mid-nineties but education stayed close to my heart.
For years Apple believed in the power of computers in education to create consumers of Apple technology. We used to take great pride in higher education that we sent college students home every Thanksgiving with full instructions as to what their families needed in the way of computer technology.
In the dark days of Apple, when it was hard to find a decent reseller of Apple products anywhere, you could discover many wonderful places to buy Macs on campuses well before Apple Stores ever showed up at the mall. Apple at the time was a real partner with campus resellers.
When I was director of federal sales at Apple, I can remember being flown to California twice to take part in education briefings. Schools in the period just after 2000, were worried that using Macs to teach their students would make them ill-prepared for a career in the business world. My job was to tell them about all the successes that the federal team was having at NASA, NIH, and the many federal labs. The not so subtle message was "Do you want your child just to learn how to use Microsoft Word or how to think like a scientist?" It was a powerful message and well received by many schools.
Apple is changed company since those days but Apple is still about convincing you that you need the next glitzy device. At Apple I heard Steve Jobs say many times that we were not an enterprise company but rather one that sold products that are sometimes very useful in the enterprise. He often followed that message with a comment about the heart of Apple being education.
So what happened? It would be easy to say that Apple became enthralled with its own gadets and maybe that is part of it. However, I think it was a much more subtle change and I have to put the blame on Steve Jobs and not Tim Cook. Tim Cook might be guiding the good ship Apple, but Steve Jobs put it on this course.
One of the biggest things that changed after Steve came back was how Apple interacted with its higher education and large business customers. There were changes with the K-12 customers but perhaps not so dramatic. If you were at Apple in the early nineties, you would probably agree that Apple and many of the thought leaders in higher education agreed that computing had the power to transform education. At one time Apple invested in many higher education projects. Apple also listened to higher education customers and worked with them to deliver exactly what their students needed for a college computing environment. There was a tremendous synergy between Apple and its higher education customers. We gave them special pricing, told them what we were going to do before we did it, and often protected them from their own mistakes.
Much of this changed when Steve came back. The first to go were customer meetings with publishing professionals. Steve did not enjoy customer meetings when he was not on a stage. While the higher education meetings continued, it was clear that Apple was not listening seriously.
The Cupertino briefings kept going for business, higher education, and K-12 customers but the amount of useful planning information that came out of the meetings declined. It was not unusual for Apple to pay the way of some K-12 executives to come to a Cupertino briefing but the true education partnerships were gone. However, the briefings also brought out another change that was close to Steve's heart. Apple sales people were excluded from customer briefings when non-disclosure information was discussed. Apple would often tell customers something that they were unwilling to tell their own sales people.
That might seem fine on the surface since no one likes sales people, but when you are company such as Apple which in essence walls itself off from its own customers except for the tiny scripted interactions that take place in an executive briefing, you need consistent, reliable feedback from your sales people as to the directions that customers are headed or the issues they need solved.
By not trusting its own sales people and giving up on customer advisory boards that often fueled Apple's own imagination, I believe Apple has become disconnected from some core elements of its customer base. Having some arrogant, perhaps even toxic sales vps has not helped Apple with its education customers. One of the worst ones is gone, but I suspect people are still trying to repair the damage that he did.
The second thing that I believe hurt Apple is the inability of the company to get web services right. While today's iCloud is better than it was, it is way too confusing compared to Google's Drive and Docs which just keep getting better and better.
The web has been an afterthought for Apple for as long as I can remember. Your web data has often been tied to a particular device just like your iPod. I remember a strong push from some of us in Apple's enterprise groups for a home directory that would work from USB thumb drives. I actually saw prototypes working but Steve shot it down because he thought people would screw it up.
Google has always abstracted the data from the hardware, Apple has always tied the data to a device in the hopes that you will buy a new one.
You can use Google Docs from just about any device including Macs of all stripes. Just try using Apple's cloud services from an Android device. Of course I have found Apple's cloud apps are often hobbled like the inability to do notes in Pages or presenter notes in Keynote. Actually you cannot even upload files from an old Mac to Apple's own Cloud drive. You have to use DropBox. How many schools have you visited where old Macs and in fact any old computers that they can find are part of their educational computing program?
While Apple was diddling around with the complexities of NetBoot, difficult to manage one to one laptop deployments and trying to convince educational customers that first the iPod, then the iPad was the greatest thing for education since chalk, Google went out and solved some real customer problems and gave educational users a way to use computers without a lot of hassle. They also gave them a keyboard, a way to collaborate, and they made it very inexpensive.
Apple makes very nice devices. On Black Friday, my wife and I were in Best Buy. I wanted her to have a look at a MacBook. Since I work for a company that uses Macs, I thought it would be nice for her to get a Mac so I would have one in case I needed to edit some Pages documents when we are traveling (and yes I have used Pages on the web). She spent some time with a MacBook Air and then went over and tried a Chromebook. Her question to me, "Why would anyone with basic browsing and email needs spend more than three times the money on a MacBook?" I had no answer.
For education customers the question turns out to be, "Why would I spent double the money on an iPad that doesn't meet the needs of my students as well as a Chromebook which is much easier to manage?"
It is a good question and most educational institutions have figured out the answer as we can see from the education sales figures.