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Apple To Aim New Computer at School Market

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Apple Computer Inc. is scheduled to unveil this week a small, versatile mobile computer that would be sold to schools for about $800.

Such a machine--and the rival products that likely will follow from competitors--could begin to close the gap between performance and affordability that still makes computer use an exotic experience in many schools.

Educators have long seen a need for portable devices that have enough power to accommodate students' needs for word processing and research on the Internet's World Wide Web, yet which are available at prices much lower than those of current portable computers.

A machine that could fill that void might also spark a resurgence for Apple, which has struggled in recent years to hold on to its dominance over the school computer market.

Officials of the Cupertino, Calif.-based company have declined to speak publicly about the new product until its release date, but details have leaked out in computer magazines and over the Internet. The thin computer, roughly 8 by 10 inches in size, will likely be available for purchase early next year.

The jet-black computer is shaped like a clamshell that opens to reveal a screen and a small but full-featured keyboard, said Harvey Barnett, the director of instructional technology at the Cupertino Union School District, who has seen the machine.

An Apple engineer who demonstrated it for district administrators over the summer told them it wouldn't break if dropped, Mr. Barnett said.

Code-named the Shay computer, the machine has a word processor with a spell checker, a Web browser, drawing tools, and a database.

It can be plugged into a school's computer network so that students will be able to browse the Web.

Student-Friendly Features

Like its closest relative, Apple's palm-sized Newton computer, the new device also has a touch-screen, an electronic pen, and can recognize handwriting, Mr. Barnett said. Another practical feature for schools is its "flash memory," which saves work just by turning the machine off, he added.

It reportedly will run on four AA batteries for approximately 25 hours, an endurance made possible in part because of the decision to omit power-hungry color from its display screen. ("Apple Unveils Computer," Oct. 30, 1996.)

Mr. Barnett, who keeps abreast of new technologies for his 15,000-student K-8 district, said his colleagues were enthusiastic about the new computer.

Much of the excitement is due to a price rumored to be about $800 for schools--and even lower when purchased in lots of six or eight. By contrast, he said, full-size machines often run about twice that amount.

"Other companies are offering schools huge multimedia machines--we don't need a classroom full of those," Mr. Barnett said.

If successful, the new machine could provide a needed boost for Apple, which recently retooled its management and is trying to climb out of a deep slump in overall sales over the past year.

Holding Market Share

The company's sales to schools, however, have remained strong. Revenue from school sales in the last quarter was the highest in the company's history, said Kimball Brown, an analyst at Dataquest Inc., a research company based in San Jose, Calif.

But the dominance of Apple's Macintosh and other computers in education--currently 40 percent of the computers in schools--has been seriously challenged by computers that use Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system. ("Windows 95 Raises Stakes in Battle Between Apples, PCs," Sept. 20, 1995.)

Mr. Brown, who declined to comment specifically on the new Apple product, said it makes sense for the company to fight for its leadership in schools. "The way you maximize profits is to specialize in certain areas," he said.

Although Mr. Brown doubted whether revenue from a new product based on the Newton could ever exceed 10 percent of Apple's total income, he said any popular product could reinforce educators' already strong loyalty to Apple products.

That dominance, in turn, compels software programmers to keep writing programs for Apple, he said.

But Apple will certainly not have the same clear field for selling the new product that it had when it catapulted the Apple II computer into schools in the early 1980s.

Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., recently announced a version of Windows that will run on hand-sized computers. And a gaggle of computer manufacturers is already gathering to make machines to run it.

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