School Of Thought: Google, Synnex Driving Chromebook Adoption In K-12

In just a short time, Google's Chromebooks have helped solution providers grow their business in the K-12 education market. Google's low-cost, cloud-powered laptops were first introduced in 2011, and several top OEM partners, from Samsung and Hewlett-Packard to Lenovo and Acer, have embraced the form factor. But the Chromebook didn't make its way to channel partners until 2013.

"We made a strong shift to the channel with Chromebooks last year," said Rajen Sheth, director of Chromebooks for Business and Education at Google, Mountain View, Calif. "Before that, we sold direct and we realized later on that we were muting the potential of the Chromebook without channel partners. So we made a big push with partners last year, and now we're looking to take that effort to the next level with Synnex."

[Related: Synnex Becomes First Distributor To Offer Google Play For Education To Partners ]

Earlier this year, Google tapped Synnex as the first distributor to offer the Google Chrome Management Console to channel partners. The Web-based console, which previously was only available through Google to authorized Chromebook resellers, allows solution providers to deploy and remotely manage thousands of Chromebooks. Now the two companies are teaming up to drive more Chromebook adoption in the K-12 market, where the device is rapidly gaining traction.

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According to market-research firm Futuresource Consulting, in the fourth quarter of 2013 Chromebooks accounted for one out of every four mobile devices shipped into U.S. K-12 schools. That's a stark contrast to 2012, when Chromebooks accounted for less than 1 percent of all mobile devices shipped in the education market, according to Futuresource.

To be sure, the Chromebook's overall market share in the laptop market is scant -- research firm IDC said the model accounted for just 1 percent of the overall PC market in 2013. But Sheth said Google's plan was to drive adoption in the K-12 market and build from there. "Education was absolutely part of the equation," Sheth said. "Some of our first testers for Chromebooks were school districts because we wanted to see if they were a good fit or not. Educators want to use computing devices but oftentimes they're too cumbersome, too expensive, and too complex for them. And that's what we're trying to solve."

Synnex, meanwhile, said it has authorized approximately 175 solution providers for the Chrome Management Console in the last 90 days since the distribution pact was struck in January. At Synnex's Red, White & You public sector conference last week in Orlando, Fla., Synnex put the spotlight on Google and its Chromebook business with an in-depth training session on the Chrome Management Console and several other sessions about the Chromebook's potential in the K-12 market.

"I would consider the partnership a modest success so far," said Eddie Franklin, vice president of sales for public sector and vertical markets at Synnex, Fremont, Calif. "We've got good geographic coverage with the Chromebook resellers we've authorized, and we're building a strong Chrome community in the channel."

Business Continuity Technologies (BCT) is one such Chromebook reseller. The Las Vegas-based solution provider started delivering Chromebooks to K-12 education clients last year and was an early adopter of the Chrome Management Console. Lester Keizer, CEO of BCT, has had a firsthand look at just how quickly Chromebooks have taken off. The solution provider recently delivered 100 Chromebooks to the White Pine County school district in Nevada as part of test phase for the Chromebook Initiative, which is Google's 1:1 laptop program (supplying one device for each student).

"We delivered 100 Chromebooks and the school district loved them so much, they brought us back to deliver more Chromebooks," Keizer said, adding that BCT is scheduled to deliver 300 additional units this year. "We've seen demand ramp up very quickly."

NEXT: Building Up The Chrome Ecosystem

The biggest knock on the Chromebook for solution providers also is one of the biggest draws for education customers: price. At an average selling price of around $300, the margins on the devices are quite low. But solution providers say Chromebooks open up more lucrative opportunities around managed services and network infrastructure. For example, Keizer said BCT is on-site at the White Pine County school district twice a week to not only manage the fleet of Chromebooks, but also to help deliver customized educational content for individual classrooms.

"There's a lot more opportunity around Chromebooks than just the device delivery. That's just a small part of it," Keizer said.

Google is adding to the Chrome ecosystem for K-12, too; Synnex announced last week that it's now offering Google Play for Education, a specialized version of the Google Play store for Android tablets with thousands of teacher-approved apps, digital textbooks and video content.

Ken Bowers, senior account manager at Sunnytech, a Woburn, Mass.-based solution provider, attended the Chromebook training session at Synnex's Red, White & You conference and said Sunnytech, which predominantly focuses on the commercial market, is moving into the K-12 space. "We're starting to get into the education market, and we're beginning to see demand for Chromebooks," Bowers said. "The key is the wireless infrastructure for these schools. If the Internet backbone isn't up to par, then Chromebooks aren't going to work. But that's an opportunity too because VARs can go in and make money off new wireless solutions."

To that end, Synnex introduced last week "Chrome Kits" for its reseller customers, which feature not only several different Chromebook models but also wireless products from Ruckus Wireless. In addition, Google's Sheth said improving wireless and Internet connectivity in schools is a major focus for Google's Chromebook Initiative, and that the company hopes to drive more network infrastructure improvements through reseller partners.

Synnex, meanwhile, also is emphasizing the rising investments in K-12 education. Franklin said the market is flourishing right now, thanks to a number of factors. "State budgets are healthy right now," he said. "They're the best they've been since before the recession, and that's driving a lot of IT spending on education. Franklin also said Common Core adoption is also helping to drive Chromebook sales; the Common Core standards have strict requirements for systems and devices and Chromebooks fit those requirements. But the biggest factor, Franklin said, is a new sense of urgency to improvement the quality of public education. "We're falling behind in education," he said, "and that's got everyone focused on fixing the problem."

Gary Bellanti, president of Memphis-based solution provider Open Road Technologies, said his company is currently working with Synnex to become authorized for the Chrome Management Console and sees major potential in the education market. "I think Synnex and Google have put together a pretty good program to get VARs authorized and up to speed on the opportunity around Chromebooks," Bellanti said. "We're seeing a lot of money at the state and local government levels being invested in education right now, and we're very interested in moving further into that space."