NewsCorp Bites at Apple

By Stephanie Blanchard, Digital Editor — March 19, 2013

Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO of NewsCorp, admired the late Steve Jobs, specifically his business tenacity, his knowledge of competitive markets and his ability to take on the machine. Now, Murdoch is showing similar tenacity, entering a competitive market and seemingly taking on the “machine” that is Apple.

Through its educational division, Amplify, the media conglomerate is jumping into the tablet space with a device geared for grades K-12. The company, formed in July 2012, has partnered with ASUS for its new Android-based 10-inch WiFi tablet. The product debuted at the SXSW tech conference in Austin, TX.

While seen by some as a direct move on Apple, it’s more likely Murdoch is acting on his personal goal to disrupt education. But will he really have any effect on this next generation of mobile workers?

In a talk on Digital’s Next Frontier; Education, given at the 2011 G8 conference, Murdoch said of media and technology, “We have learned how to micro-target audiences to maximize the stickiness of our websites, to personalize our newsfeeds. Now we need to bring these kinds of expertise to education, to make mathematics sticky, to micro-target the eighth grade girls who might want to be physicists.”

“Unfortunately, for too many students in too many classrooms, it’s still one size fits all,” Murdoch said. “Ask teachers how that’s working out.”

Bite of the Apple?
Apple, with a total shipment of 22.9 million units in Q4 2012 (up from 15.4 million in the year-ago quarter), continues to dominate the tablet market in general, and the education sector in particular.

“We’ve said we have sold over 4.5 million iPads to U.S. Education Institutions and an estimated 8 million iPads sold in education worldwide. We’ve also sold over 120 million iPads total,” said Apple representative Trudy Muller, by email.

According to IDC, Apple will concede market share to Android-based tablets in 2013. (The analyst firm is predicting Apple will drop from 51% to 46%, while Android increases it share to almost 49%.) With two tablet titans to contend with, where does that leave NewsCorp?

Jeff Orr, Senior Analyst, Mobile Content, ABI Research, does not believe Amplify will have much, if any impact, on Apple’s success in the education space. “Apple is succeeding at education because of its brand and its history especially in the U.S. K-12 market,” Orr said in a phone interview with Mobile Enterprise.

“There’s lots of questions about how Amplify and how NewsCorp will reach the school districts,” he explained. He noted that iPads are not directly purchased by school districts specifically because it’s the best solution or been “blessed” by school superintendents. Typically, he said, the iPads have been brought in by grants.

“It’s not obvious what reach NewsCorp has that makes it believe it can have more influence than Apple or Dell, someone already in the market,” Orr said.

In addition, Amplify is being targeted at middle school, he said. “We see that as almost the exit age for tablet products, where there is a transition type needed such as the keyboard.” Because of the amount of content creation, rather than consumption, at later ages, the “sweet spot is first or second grade,” Orr said. That’s when students can use touch, and are young enough that they don’t have to write, or learn how to use a keyboard, in order to engage with the device.

Orr personally likes the idea of carrying hardware and software to provide a “great experience.” However, knowing the education system, he said, he doubts that Amplify will matter. “In my experience with districts large and small, they have more priorities than just technology. They are not suffering a lack of technology, arguably it could be better. But leadership is needed with the content. Apple sells on the content experience. I don’t see that being any different for any other vendor.”

Get Amplified
Offered at an introductory price of $299 for the device (when purchased with a 2-year subscription at $99 per year), the Amplify tablet supports Common Core-aligned content. The Amplify Tablet Plus, starting at $349 in conjunction with a 2-year subscription ($179 annually) has a 4G data plan.

The tablet runs on Android (Jelly Bean) and has a NVIDIA Tegra 3 quad-core CPU. Along with customized apps, it also includes apps from Encyclopedia Britannica and Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Project Noah also has a completely re-designed next-generation app that includes new features and a new interface.

“The Britannica product that will be part of the tablet’s content is Britannica School, an online information solution for the classroom that represents much more than the encyclopedia,” said Tom Panelas, Director, Communications, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., by email. The web-based solution provides multimedia resources for lessons and lesson planning, curriculum support, student and teacher research and homework help.

According to Amplify, its tablet is being piloted in school districts across the country in collaboration with AT&T. Tablets are scheduled to be in use starting with the 2013-2014 school year.

Critics have said Murdoch’s plan to disrupt education is really just a play on pocketbooks, or worse, to automate education with computers. “Technology will never replace the teacher,” Murdoch said at 2011’s G8 Summit, adding that sophisticated analytics is supposed to assist teachers, not eliminate them.

“Let me be clear, what I’m speaking about is not the outline of some exotic, fictional, distant future,” he concluded. Indeed, it looks like the future is here, but is yet to be determined. No doubt tablets will play a role.

March 19th Update:
Mobile Enterprise spoke with Stephen Smyth, President, Amplify, Access Division, about the new tablet solution designed for education.

Why the solution, now?

“Technology is not new to K-12 but everyone agrees that it has not yet moved the needle,” Smyth said.

Asked how Amplify is actually reaching the school districts, Smyth replied, “We have a sales force, already in market. The national sales team meets regularly with districts to explain the benefits of the solution.”

The overall response, he noted, has been very positive. Amplify was already having conversations prior to the tablet’s launch at SWSX, he said, and following the event’s media blitz, the company has seen a significant pickup in interest.

In addition, running a series of pilots since the fall, Amplify is in a continuous feedback loop with pilot districts. The solution can be updated on a daily basis if needed, from fixing technology problems to either tweaking or adding content and classroom management tools.

Is the solution a play on pocketbooks?

“This is not just about throwing hardware over the wall into schools,” Smyth said. “We see that a platform like this is a great investment in the future of our children across the country."


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