By January 2016, when the Houston Independent School District's latest tech initiative hits full stride, the district will issue laptops to every high school student and teacher in the district. All 65,000 of those laptops will run Windows 7 and cloud-based Office 365. For Microsoft, that's sweet news: a solid little victory in the digital war for global domination.

As every tech geek knows, Microsoft, the world's third-largest technology company, is embroiled in a three-way war with the first- and second-largest, Apple and Google. Each of those behemoths hopes to establish its own computing ecosystem as the world's digital default, to be the system that everyone everywhere just seems to use on the fast-growing array of devices that connect to the Web. (Coming soon: Dog collars! Home thermostats! Cars!)

In the last two years, elementary, middle and high schools have been among the war's hottest fronts. In part, that's simply because K-12 education is a fast-growing, largely untapped market: According to analyst Phillip Maddocks of Futuresource, a research and forecasting company, only about 25 percent of U.S. students and teachers are currently equipped with devices such as laptops or tablets.

But that number is bound to rise. Last year, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the federal ConnectEd program, with a goal of making high-speed broadband available to 99 percent of American students by 2017. In January, Obama's State of the Union address included a call to bring American classrooms up to date. Soon after, a group of private tech companies, including Apple and Microsoft, committed to donate $750 million in devices, software, training and Wi-Fi - as well as to offering deep discounts.

For those tech companies, such efforts are one part altruism, one part gold rush. As the remaining 75 percent of American students obtain devices and Wi-Fi, their hardware, software and habits are up for grabs.

"The scale is what's so new," says Cameron Evans, chief technology officer at Microsoft Education. "Before, there were always five computers in the back of the classroom. Until 2012, that was acceptable."

Apple

"Apple is still the main and dominant player in the market," says Maddocks. But in Houston, as in the rest of the country, its hold on the market is shaky.

Until recently, Apple's iPad was the hot education device, lauded for ease of use, elegant design and "cool" factor. In 2012, for instance, Fort Bend ISD launched a $16 million initiative to deploy iPads in science classes at 14 elementary and middle schools.

But for all their cool, iPads aren't the sturdiest machines. They're expensive, costing roughly $400 for a bottom-of-the-line model with a 9.7-inch screen. They don't include keyboards, and they aren't compatible with many online standardized tests.

Worse still, from Apple's point of view, are a couple of high-profile iPad flops. The Los Angeles Unified School District distributed iPads to students at 38 campuses last year, with an ultimate goal of issuing the devices to all of its 651,000 students. But the program is mired in controversy. Critics say that its estimated $1 billion price tag is too high, and they point to confusion about who's responsible for the iPads. Students have hacked their way past security into Facebook, Twitter and Pandora. And some district officials worry about the readiness of the digital curriculum that textbook publisher Pearson is developing for the iPads.

The program at Fort Bend ISD ran into similar problems. The science curriculum that an inexperienced vendor called Curriculum Ventures was supposed to develop didn't make it into classrooms on time and didn't function well. An independent consultant found that the entire iPad program had unrealistic goals, that use of the devices was limited, and that the skills of the people supposed to manage the program weren't adequate. In October, the district shelved the program.

Google

"In the U.S.," says Maddocks, "one of the big trends of the last 12 to 18 months has been the emergence of Chromebooks." By the fourth quarter of 2013, those Google-friendly laptops had claimed a quarter of the K-12 market, and analysts say that their share is growing. For cash-strapped schools, the prices are compelling: Chromebooks cost as little as $200, complete with keyboards, and the Google cloud-based software they use is free.

"I'm a passionate Google advocate," says Amy Mayer, one of the founders of the Texas Google Summit for teachers, as well as director of staff development and new initiatives for Huntsville ISD. "I love the openness."

By "openness," Mayer means an ideology that's practically embedded in the system. Web-based Google software isn't limited to Chromebooks or computers that run the Chrome operating system. Huntsville, like many districts, operates under a "Bring Your Own Device" philosophy for students in grades 5-12, and naturally, the devices that the students bring from home run a wide variety of systems. But because the Google platform works on anything able to browse the Web, when a teacher shares a document, students can read it on cellphones, iPads, Windows laptops or whatever else they have.

Like many Google advocates, Mayer believes that openness should extend, as much as is safe, to students' ability to access websites. Federal funding rules require schools to filter students' access, but schools vary greatly in what they filter.

"Some schools spend millions on hardware and software," says Mayer, "but students can't use the simplest Web 2.0 tools to create a collaborative blog or upload a YouTube video."

At Huntsville ISD, she says, "we make that possible. If you're missing YouTube, you're missing a critical component of modern culture. And it's the same if you can't do a Google search. In school, kids will sneak out their phones to look up a fact on Google.

"We should be encouraging that, not preventing it. This is the world we live in. You don't have to memorize facts anymore so much as know how to look them up and how to use them."

Microsoft

In choosing Microsoft and issuing the same model of laptop to every high school student, Houston ISD takes a very different approach: one that values centralization, standardization and control.

"We felt that the Microsoft OS gave us the ability to lock down and manage the devices more than any other platform out there," explains Lenny Schad, Houston ISD's chief technology officer. "We needed to ensure that our kids are protected, that kids don't install software on a whim."

HISD is working on ways for students to use Web 2.0 tools, such as blogging software, but only within the school walls, in collaboration with students and teachers but not outsiders.

With Microsoft, Schadsays, "website filtering follows the laptop wherever it goes. Whether it's at HISD or Starbucks, the district filter follows the device. Microsoft also ensures that students don't install their own software or change the configuration."

That, of course, is a tall order. In February, eight students at Bellaire High School, one of the first HISD schools to receive laptops, were suspended for hacking their machine's security in a way that allowed them to install software such as video games.

"I won't say that we're 100 percent bulletproof," Schad admits. "But this is Microsoft. It uses industry best practices."

Advocates say that Microsoft's prevalence in the business world is another major benefit. Familiarity with Microsoft Office will give graduates a leg up in the job market, they say, and parents will be better able to help kids with their homework.

The software's price, too, is right. HISD is leasing powerful, relatively expensive laptops - HP Ultrabooks - at a cost of roughly $260 per student per year, including loss and damage insurance and a tracking device. But because Houston ISD purchases Microsoft Office for its faculty and staff, a Microsoft education initiative makes cloud-based Office 365 software free for students.

Evans, Microsoft's chief technology officer for education, argues that focusing on device and software specifications risks missing the bigger picture.

"With the cost of tech dropping so quickly," he says, "the story isn't 'Guess who bought a bunch of devices.' By the end of this year, that won't be newsworthy. The story is what are teachers and students doing? Is it transforming teaching and learning?"

"We're at the beginning of a new conversation," he says. "Houston is in a great place to lead."

©2014 the Houston Chronicle