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Thousands of HP's ProBook 4440 laptops will enter Maine classrooms under the deal. These computers, which ship with Windows 8 pre-installed but are not touch-enabled, could signal an interesting reversal for Redmond and its rival in Cupertino. As iOS, Android and OS X have invaded the enterprise, Microsoft has seen its longtime stronghold become fragmented by BYOD forces. Windows 8 has so far been the company's foremost response. Apple, meanwhile, has traditionally been a strong education player. Maine's HP contract doesn't change that, but it gives other schools something to think about; LePage implied that Windows machines are better than Macs when it comes to preparing students for the tasks and interfaces they'll most commonly face in workplace.
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"It is important that our students are using technology that they will see and use in the workplace," said LePage in a statement, adding that HP's laptops will give students experience with "the same technology they will see in their future careers."
The increased use of tablets in the enterprise, particularly the iPad, certainly challenges this notion. And the fact that the state chose a Windows 8 device -- Windows 7 is a far more prevalent business OS -- could also be fodder for debate. Still, Microsoft has been working to engage educators and to demonstrate how Windows can be used in the classroom. If schools outside Maine find these efforts persuasive, Redmond could strengthen a lucrative revenue stream, buying Windows 8 some breathing room until Windows Blue and new devices help the platform find its consumer footing.
A strong Win8 presence in schools will only help the consumer process along, as it will condition young users to the new Windows user interface known as Metro. The OS's critics have lambasted Metro as awkward and counterintuitive but its defenders say the new interface can be powerful if users commit to a short learning curve. Those defenders also say that touchscreens are an essential part of the Metro experience, however, so the ProBook's potential for success in this regard might be limited.
In a blog post that coincided with Maine's announcement, Microsoft VP Margo Day touted the company's growth in the education market, writing that Microsoft's share of the tablet market has quadrupled since Windows 8 was released, and that U.S. schools have been among the early adopters.
Though it's reasonable to assume that middle schoolers will gain workplace skills by using Windows, LePage suggested that economics were also a driving factor, noting that HP submitted the lowest bid. He also said schools will not be forced to use the ProBooks. Rather, they can choose from a range of devices that include iPads, MacBook Airs, and other Windows 8 tablets. That said, if a school chooses a device that costs more than the HP laptop, the school will have to pay the difference.
A report by the Maine Public Broadcasting Network stated that a number of teachers are uneasy about the change, citing prior professional development with OS X and affection for the Apple machines as the primary sources of discontent. Apple's original contract with Maine began in 2002 and was reportedly worth $37 million. It was extended in 2006 and 2009.
Outside of the recent development in Maine, Apple's education business has been robust. In 2012, Mac sales in the segment reached an all-time high, helping Apple to outperform the sagging PC market. Even more importantly, the company sold twice as many iPads to schools as it did Macs. Indeed, analysts began to suggest last fall that the iPad had cannibalized the PC's education sales. If Maine's attitude proves contagious, Microsoft could be in position to gain back its lost ground.