The iPad’s biggest success has been among K-12 schools. That’s where it also faces one of its strongest competitors, a spinoff of an obscure 29-year-old Midwestern company that has made inroads where Amazon, Google and Samsung could not.
That’s right – this family-owned Indianapolis, Indiana firm has succeeded against mighty Apple with its $375 tablet where Google, Samsung and Amazon have so far failed.
It’s particularly impressive because among educators, Apple has the same cachet that IBM once owned in the enterprise. If no corporate CIO used to get fired for buying Big Blue, then few school principals or district CIOs get overly grilled for choosing iPads over other tablets.
1,000 Wawasee High School students in Indiana are using the Kuno.
Yet, here you have San Felipe Del Rio District in Texas deploying 1,600 Kuno tablets instead of iPads, Wise County Public Schools (Virginia) rolling out 600 Kunos, and William M. Bass Elementary (Virginia) and Morton District (Illinois) both using about 100 Kunos in their classes.
The Kuno’s biggest fans are in the Midwest, with Martin Elementary School in suburban Chicago rolling out 1,200 Kunos, Cardinal High School in Iowa (530 Kunos), and, of course, Indiana, where Wawasee High School and Beech Grove City Schools have each rolled out more than 1,000 Kunos, and Crothersville HS has deployed 600.
“This month alone, we’re implementing 12,000 Kunos,” said JR Gayman, CEO of CurriculumLoft.
Gayman declined to say how many Kunos total are in use today. Asked if it was in the six figures: “I think the number would surprise people,” he said.
That the Kuno – the name combines K (for K-12) and the Spanish number for one, ‘Uno’, to signify one-to-one student:tablet deployments – is around today is a result of luck and entrepreneurial spirit.
CurriculumLoft is a spinoff of CIM Technology Solutions, which was founded in 1983 by JR’s parents as an installer of slide projecters and other 80s-era audio-visual equipment to schools. Even today, the Web site www.CIMtechsolutions.com automatically redirects to CIMav.com.
About 3 years ago, Indiana became one of the first states to allow schools to take taxpayer money earmarked for textbooks and use it on digital technology.
Gayman, who had worked as a developer in the Bay Area during the tail end of the dot-com era before rejoining the family firm, spotted an opportunity.
“We could see that the funding that was going toward smartboards and projectors would start moving to tablets and e-books,” Gayman said.
CurriculumLoft CEO JR Gayman (left) and vice-president Josh Whitis traveled to China for a year while designing the first Kuno.
“We have a complete mobile learning solution for education. You can’t get that with an iPad,” added Whitis. The iPad “is a great product, but it can be hard to manage. We’ve had several schools that were in the adoption process for iPad, that changed direction because of us.”
According to Gayman, the iPad isn’t even the Kuno’s biggest competitor. “Lenovo is who we see the most,” he said.
“The use of the Kuno was not a hard transition for the students to make at all,” wrote Drew Markel, assistant principal for Crothersville Community Schools in Crothersville, Indiana, which deployed 550 Kunos, last year. “We want our students marketable in today’s workplace.”
The biggest problem with the Kuno in its first year appears to have been the high breakage rate, which Gayman blamed on an inadequately-ruggedized case. To fix that, the latest version of the Kuno comes standard with an aluminum back, thick interior padding, and a plastic molded case that includes a cover to protect against pencils and other sharp objects.
With the re-engineered Kuno, the breakage rate so far is under 1%, Gayman said.
Gayman also touts the Kuno’s battery that can be recharged 1,000 times, giving it a lifespan of 3-4 years – a key point for cash-strapped schools.
But is that lifecycle realistic considering the Kuno’s single-core ARM chip? Especially when there are quad-core, Tegra 3-based kids’ tablets like the Nabi, or dual-core Android education tablets like the Kineo that also boast curriculum and management software?
Gayman says that no schools have complained. “Our goal is to maintain a cheap price point with a single-core model that is durable and sustainable,” he said.
And, he says, the Kuno is doing so well that CurriculumLoft is planning to release a version tailored for healthcare and corporate verticals. Ironically, CurriculumLoft is not planning to create a Kuno tailored for universities. “We’ve found that it is a very different market,” Gayman said.
CurriculumLoft’s expansion could be jumping the gun. Some educational tech experts think that growth in the K-12 market will come, as in the enterprise, from BYOD, rather than school-funded deployments. That will put the Kuno at a disadvantage vs. $199 consumer tablets like the Google Nexus and the Amazon Kindle Fire, said Corey Thompson, CEO of Naiku, Inc., an educational software firm.
“I think the challenge for these specialized tablets will be to find the schools that are willing to pay a premium in order to have some additional support in addition to already paying for the devices themselves,” he said.
Gayman is undaunted. The company has spread its bets, such that if specialized tablets like the Kuno go out of favor, CurriculumLoft can still offer its software for whatever device – smartphone, tablet, PC – schools go with.
“Our goal is to be platform-agnostic,” he said. “The future may look very different.”
Do you think the future for Android tablets in education will be solutions like the Kuno or consumer-y tablets like the Nexus?