Microsoft, Apple, Google, and today's kid coders

As a kid growing up in the 1970s and '80s, I remember when my mother's clunky LED calculator with glowing red numbers was advanced consumer technology. There was no DirectTV, no streaming video, and no mainstream internet.

This was a time before cell phones. If we needed to make a phone call while in public, we stepped into a phone booth, dropped a dime into the slot and dialed the phone number we'd previously memorized. (Yes, we remembered phone numbers back then.) If someone answered, great; if not, nothing answered. There was no voicemail, and answering machines with the tiny little tapes weren't even a thing. Computers certainly were not interwoven into the fabric of our culture, as they are today.

Interacting with a computer during the '70s was something we kids did in our imaginary play if at all. An actual computer was one of those big metal things on TV that beeped a lot, had a bunch of blinking lights and twirling tape reels and that did really important things, like guide rockets into space.

I got my first computer in the '80s while I was in grammar school. It was called Aquarius, and we connected it to the TV like we did our Colecovision video game console. I began learning BASIC programming as I followed the tutorials and accompanying walkthroughs. I still played outside, wrestled, rode my bike and climbed trees like the other kids.

Still, learning how to program was not the norm for a kid in the '80s. I was an anomaly. Fast forward 30-plus years and the kid not learning how to program may be the anomaly.

Digital reality

My daughters will grow up in a world where computers will be in their pockets, likely on their person as some type of wearable, and implemented in their environments as intelligent IoT devices. Programming will be as much a part of their education as reading and writing.

Tech companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple are already vying for the hearts and minds of our children. They've aggressively introduced their flavors of devices and solutions into the education sector with hopes of enticing kids to their platforms.

With Windows 10 S and Surface Laptop Microsoft takes on Google and Apple

As a comprehensive approach to winning children to the fuller scope of personal computing beyond the experiences of developed products, these same companies have introduced programs to teach children how to code.

Apple's Swift approach

In 2014, Apple introduced its new program language Swift. Apple boasts Swift has several advantages over Objective-C, the programming language developers traditionally used to develop for iOS. Swift is reportedly faster, more modern, simpler and provides a higher level of interactivity in development than Objective-C.

Swift Playground for iPad.

In 2016, Apple introduced Swift Playground for iPad. The app introduces children to coding via lesson-based exercises where they control an avatar via code within the context of a graphically engaging world. The child must enter specific code to accomplish assigned tasks.

The popularity of iPhones and iPads may be an advantage that Apple has among these kid coders. The app is available to millions of children who have access to iPads at home. "Developing" within Apple's ecosystem at a young age may entice children to join the 16 million developers who currently support Apple's ecosystem.

Google's gambit

Among Microsoft's rivals, Google's analogous range of products and services makes it the greatest threat to Redmond. Additionally, via Android, Google boasts a mobile OS that has dethroned Windows as the world's dominant OS.

Chromebooks are popular in American schools.

Chromebooks are popular in American schools.

Add this to Google's aggressive, and growing presence in the education sector (which is more pronounced in the U.S. than globally), and it's clear that Google is looking to dominate personal computing.

As part of the company's attempts to win the next generation, Google has supported or participated in several initiatives that are geared to teaching children how to code.

Blocky Code introduces coding concepts via shape-based challenges. Made with Code is meant to inspire girls to embrace programming. MIT App Inventor uses a drag-and-drop environment to teach children how to build Android apps.

CS First science club.

Google's CS First science clubs initiative has over 700,000 users. Teachers and students use the free coding tool called Scratch and the curriculum's nine units (art, music and sound, fashion, friends, animation, game design, sports, social media and storytelling) to teach and learn coding.

Microsoft and Minecraft

In 2014, Microsoft purchased the wildly popular game Mojang's Minecraft for $2.5 billion. Many people wondered how Microsoft might integrate this game into its vision.

Though deep integration with HoloLens makes sense for this game that focuses on building three-dimensional worlds, Microsoft's early integration of the game has been in the education sector as Minecraft for Education.

Over 100 million users already play the game religiously. Microsoft's turning the beloved platform into a tool that can both educate children and integrate them into its ecosystem was a wise consumer-focused strategy. Minecraft, like Xbox, is a product that can help the company attain that elusive "cool factor."

Hundreds of classrooms use Minecraft, and in response to educator demand, Microsoft introduced Minecraft Code Builders in May of this year.

Minecraft Code Builders.

Similar to Apple's solution, users utilize an "agent" that responds to code. A more advanced coder can use code without the use of an agent.

The popularity of Minecraft is a tremendous advantage for Microsoft in its strategy to teach children coding and to draw them into its ecosystem. Combining Minecraft and HoloLens in education is wrought with even greater potential.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

HoloLens in education.

The world I grew up in where multiple color TVs in the home were the norm, video game consoles were beginning to invade living rooms, and LCD handheld game systems were technological wonders differed considerably from the 1940s and 1950s of my father's youth. The stories he told of "his day" made him seem like an old fogie.

Girls learning to code.

Girls learning to code.

As my daughters grow up and I speak in awe about how coding is part of their basic education but was not even a normal part of "my world," I can imagine that to them their dad, too, will be an old fogie. But that's OK. It's just the cycle of life — and the cycle of technology.

Jason Ward

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

  • Thanks for reading folks! Tech companies are employing aggressive strategies to reach children, teach them, prepare them for the future technological landscape and win them to their respective platforms. What are your thoughts about kids learning to code as a normal part of the education and real world experiences? How does that differ from yours? LET'S TALK!!!
  • Wow! Great article Jason. You did a really good job with this one :)
  • Thank Summer_Moon. I appreciate that!
  • I really like the trend I am seeing. Less focus on study and more focus on the visual learning experience. I think we learn best, when we are having fun doing it.   I spend a great deal of my sparetime either helping or gaining knowledge to help tell the generation before me how they can get the best experience from their devices. I look forward to people just knowing this, as well as being less fearful of technological change. How it differs from mine, is that so much more happens on a computer today in schools. I think I would learn much more in today's schools than I did back in my school time.
  • Can't force them to code!
  • I don't think it's forcing them to code. It's teaching them that everything is code. There's a difference. It helps for them to be able to understand things in a different way than what I did while growing up.
  • No need to force anything, you integrate coding principles into games and kids pick it up and consume it like it's a tasty sandwich. Then you show them that what they just learned is actually applicable to anything they set their mind to and the 'damage' will be done for a lot of them.. 
  • I learned very basic coding from Kodu in high school about 5 years ago. I'm not a programmer, but it was fun to learn the basics. The problem solving required to learn it was helpful later in college. I hope coding will become a staple in education! 
  • Minecraft! The one app I definitely want on HL version 2.0;")
  • Great article Jason. I always look forward to your articles. I'm a computer science teacher and I have to say it's not about forcing them to code but giving them the opportunity to explore. Coding helps develop children's problem solving skills and I have to say the children I teach from the ages of 5 to 18 love coding. Minecraft is Microsoft's key to getting into schools in a big way. I'm a bit bitter about the shutting down of project spark as it could have been great as it took the coding language of Kodu and added appealing 3D graphics. Also, one education device which Microsoft is support is the BBC Micro:Bit which uses Microsoft's TouchDevelop programming platform. Every 11 year old in the UK got one and is proving to be popular.
  • Is Minecraft for Education still only available through schools?  No option to sign up outside of the school curriculum?  Because the school my children attend is all-in on Apple hardware, and don't really have a STEM course that teaches kids coding.  So unless Microsoft have changed the requirements, and I can sign my kids up OUTSIDE of the school curriculum, Minecraft for Education is a non-starter.  They'll stick to learning Javascript and Python through
  • It is available on Macs too.
  • For me this Apple-Thing would be a reason so switch school.
  • Microsoft should be pouring tens of millions of dollars every year into identifying and grooming the next generation of developers, similar to the way professional sports teams find athletes: equipment, training, education, coaching, tournaments, live-in and day-school academies, camps, etc.
  • well, it looks like MS has lost the hipsters of today.  I guess they gotta invest in the hipsters of tomorrow.  Hopefully they can make a comeback... 
  • I want the beeping, blinking lights and tape wheels back now ;-)