won't arrive in time for the back-to-school rush, but Microsoft still hopes to gets its technology into students' hands. On Wednesday, the company launched Bing for Schools, a new program that offers an ad-free version of Bing for use in the classroom. It also enables schools to earn free Surface RT tablets through the Bing Rewards program.
Bing for Schools features three enhancements relative to the standard version: no advertisements in search returns; automatic filters to block inappropriate content; and beefed-up privacy protections. In a statement, Microsoft announced that a number of large school districts have already signed up, including Los Angeles Unified School District, Atlanta Public Schools and Fresno Unified School District. The company said Bing for Schools will be available to more than 800,000 students as they begin school this fall.
The Surface RT tablets, meanwhile, can be earned not only by Bing users within the school but also others within the community. In effect, the program allows schools to turn Bing searches into fundraisers for new classroom tablets. Microsoft said it takes about 60 Bing Rewards users per month to earn a tablet. The free Surface RTs will come with a Touch Cover.
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At face value, the program represents a way for Microsoft to eat into Google's search engine dominance, but there are several other potential benefits. Higher Bing adoption in schools could encourage developers of education apps to more seriously consider Bing APIs, for example. Microsoft introduced the APIs in July at Build, its conference for developers. At the time, Microsoft VP Gurdeep Singh Pall said they could endow apps with the "unbounded knowledge" of the Internet. If any group should be intrigued by this sort of rhetoric, it's educators.
Microsoft is also likely to benefit if more students use Windows RT devices in the classroom. Such usage could compel developers to take more interest in the Modern UI, which would benefit the entire Windows 8 ecosystem. It could also increase consumer adoption. If students become familiar with the Modern UI at school, they might be more interested in using the OS at home, especially now that low-end Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets are becoming more cost-competitive with Android and iPad options.
The iPad has become very popular with educators, and even before announcing Bing for Schools, Microsoft was trying to push its tablet into the same market. Earlier this summer, the company gave away 10,000 of the devices to attendees at the International Society for Technology in Education conference. Since June, Microsoft has also been offering the tablet to schools for only $199, a price that beats the retail cost by $150, even after the Surface RT's recent discounts.
The Surface RT has been a spectacular failure on the mass market, but schools could still be interested in the device, especially now that the tablets can be procured at no direct cost. Devices such as the Surface RT allow students to not only do Web research and word processing, but also to utilize touch apps and carry the device outside of the classroom for field research. They also cost less than many laptops. Due to this versatility, schools such as Seton Hall University in New Jersey and Clear Creek Independent School District in Texas have already moved to Windows 8 tablets.
Time will tell how many schools are interested in laptop-tablet hybrid devices, and whether Microsoft's Bing for Schools program, which is currently only available within the U.S., will attract any of them to the Surface RT. If nothing else, the program gives Microsoft a way to burn off excess Surface RT inventory as it preps newer, more compelling Surface models.