Two Companies To Offer Computers Specifically for Schools
As the American microcomputer market was experiencing what experts called the early stages of a "shakeout," two companies were launching the first U.S. efforts to develop and market computers designed specifically for education.
Acorn Computers Ltd., the major manufacturer of computers for schools in Great Britain, this month initiated a marketing effort in this country that officials predicted would enable the company to attract 10 percent of the education market within the next year.
At the same time, officials of a new Virginia-based company called the National Information Utilities Corporation (niuc) were studying the possibility of developing a computer system specifically for education.
niuc officials said the company has had discussions with Intel Corporation, a major manufacturer of microchips, about collaborating on such a project. The niuc is expected to make a public offering of its stock soon.
Terry Herndon, formerly executive director of the National Education Association and now director of a study of the education market for the niuc, said the new company might attempt to develop computer systems that would link school computers with each other and with large databases across the country.
Intel officials have expressed an interest in "moving from the chip business to the systems business," Mr. Herndon said. The niuc and Intel have not decided whether they would produce a new computer or incorporate available technology into a complete educational system.
niuc officials have consulted many education organizations, such as the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium and the New York City Board of Education, about what features an educational computer would need to be useful.
Acorn officials, meanwhile, said their machine's $995 pricetag should make their computer competitive with the major American computers now used by schools. The Acorn is now used by 85 percent of all schools in Great Britain.
Harvey Lawner, senior vice president of Acorn, said the company would spend more than $3 million on an advertising campaign in the coming year to promote the computer.
The Acorn includes a local-area network system, voice synthesizers and voice-recognition capabilities, a built-in word-processing program, and a basic programming language. About 200 educational software packages are now available for use on the machine and officials expect another 500 to be available before the end of the year. Acorn also offers teacher training in computer use.
Acorn's success in Britain is due primarily to the British Broadcasting Corporation's selection of the firm's computer as the winner of a competition among computer manufacturers. After winning that com-petition, Acorn started carrying the respected bbc logo on its machines and took advantage of the publicity that came its way in a bbc television series about computers.
Mr. Lawner said Acorn already has received orders worth $21 million from U.S. school systems and distributors. He declined to name the districts that have made commitments to Acorn. In a $500-million market, Mr. Lawner said, the company needs only to attract about $30 million more in business to reach its goals for the year. "We're half-way there, and we've got 12 months to go," he said.
Experts say recent industry developments--such as Acorn's entry into the school market, the bankruptcy of Osborne Computers, and the uneven performances of many computer stocks--indicate the industry is experiencing a "shakeout" that will have long-term consequences for education.
A September survey by Quality Education Data, a Denver-based research firm, found "increasing frag-mentation " in the school computer market, with Atari of Warner Communications, Franklin Computers, International Business Machines Corporation, and Texas Instruments, slowing the previous momentum of Apple Computer Inc. and Tandy-Radio Shack.
Apple is holding its position as the top producer of computers for schools, but smaller firms appear to be making inroads. Some 33,698 schools are using Apples this school year, the survey found--more than twice the number of schools using machines manufactured by Radio Shack (13,284), Commodore (8,415), Atari (1,935), and Texas Instruments (1,428).
Acorn will be the first company exclusively to seek the school market.
Educators disagree on whether schools need a computer that is any different from those of businesses and home users.
Some contend that the schools' only concern should be obtaining durable machines at reasonable prices. But others say a computer's built-in languages and programs, networking capacity, and memory are more important for schools than for other users.
P. Kenneth Komoski, the execu-tive director of Educational Products Information Exchange, said he doubted whether a computer designed for education would be much different from other computers. But, he said, the Acorn's attention to the school market is "admirable."
Arthur Leuhrmann, a partner of Computer Literacy Inc., in Berkeley, Calif., says there is "hardly anything" a computer manufacturer can do to make a computer more useful for education than for small businesses or home users.
"All computers are essentially the same, whether they're a $99 computer or a large mainframe computer," he said. Schools vary so much in their reasons for buying computers, he said, that no one computer can necessarily satisfy the needs of all schools.
Kenneth Brumbaugh, the executive director of the quasi-governmental Minnesota computing organization, said the computer manufacturers need only offer "reliable documentation" and training for educators to make most computers useful for the classroom. "If the computer wasn't such a useful tool, there would be no need to explain so many different things," he said.
But Marc S. Tucker, a former policy director for the National Institute of Education who is conducting a study of educational technology with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, says educators should push manufacturers to include several specific features in computers for schools.
Perhaps most important, Mr. Tucker said, is equipping a computer with a networking system, which would allow students and teachers to work closely together on separate terminals. "One of the most exciting possibilities is that kids can comment on each other's work, edit it, extend it," Mr. Tucker said.
Most computer companies have avoided developing network systems, Mr. Tucker and others said, because they probably would reduce the amount of "peripheral" computer products that a school would have to buy per computer. For example, a 20-computer network would need only one large disk-drive system to boost the power of all computers, while the individual computers would each need one disk-drive.
Mr. Tucker said educational computers should also include some built-in programs such as word-processing and "spreadsheet" programs; more structurally sound programming languages; and flexible memory and processing capacities.