Big Mac Attack

By Jason Tanz — February 01, 2001 9 min read
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Charles Dribin is rapturous as he remembers the first time he used a Macintosh computer, back in 1985. “All of a sudden, everything fell into place,” he says. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, I can do everything faster and easier.’”

Ever since that epiphany, Dribin, a 50-year-old speech, theater, and English teacher, has been proselytizing for Apple Computer Inc. and its Macintosh at Glenbrook North High School in the Chicago suburbs. Over the years, he has become a one-man tech-support shop for his Mac-using colleagues, leading training sessions and trouble-shooting for free. He’s also lobbied for Macintosh purchases as a member of the district’s technology committee.

But the last three years have not been kind to Dribin or his beloved Macintosh. In 1997, his district moved to phase out Macs and standardize the school’s computer network on a PC platform. “They said: ‘That’s it, that’s it. No more new Macs,’ ” he remembers. Dribin, however, wasn’t giving up without a fight. He and a group of other teachers and district employees campaigned against the board’s move, insisting that students should be given a choice of computing platforms. At one point, when MacWEEK published a preview of Apple’s then soon-to-be-released OS 9 operating system, Dribin ran off copies for the other technology committee members. “They looked at me like I had been spreading a disease,” Dribin sighs. This year, he found himself quietly dropped from the committee. “All of a sudden, I stopped getting e-mails,” he says.

America’s classrooms are home to legions of Mac fanatics like Charles Dribin, thanks in part to the company’s early dominance in the education market. They subscribe to print magazines such as MacAddict and Macworld and check the daily headlines on Web sites devoted to Apple news, such as MacCentral and MacSurfer. And for years, they’ve been evangelizing in their schools, passing out Apple stickers in the teachers’ lounge and railing against Microsoft’s Windows operating

But today, Mac evangelists find their crusade is turning into a battle for survival. Increasingly, schools are dumping Macintosh computers in favor of all- PC networks. Faced with the prospect of a Mac-less classroom, teachers like Dribin are waging guerilla war against principals, superintendents, and school boards that dare to mess with their machines. Their arguments are rooted in reason—Macs make for better learning tools, they say. But it’s clear that a lot of these teachers also have their identities as professionals wrapped up in the machine. system—or “Windoze,” in Mac speak.

Macs have always inspired legendary brand loyalty. “There are people that are extremely passionate and fervent about these products,” says Anne Bui, a senior analyst at IDC, a technology analysis firm. “That’s not true about any other vendor that I can think of. This is a special breed. . . . It’s almost cultlike.”

In the 1980s and early ’90s, schools were particularly strong houses of Mac worship. Apple was the first major computer manufacturer to offer steep discounts to schools and educators, and it quickly cornered the education market for computers. A 1983 survey found 34,000 schools using Apples—twice the number of any other brand. At the time, Apple was aggressively wooing teachers. In 1986, it sent about 2,000 educators to San Francisco and paid their room and board so that they could attend the Apple World Conference. The company also aimed some of its clever, avant-garde advertising directly at teachers. One 1987 television spot featured a high schooler and “frog advocate” who had made national news as a conscientious objector to a class dissection. Using Apple’s Operation Frog software, the ad noted, students could learn anatomy without cutting open animals.

“Apple has always marketed itself to segments of the business where you have a great deal of independent thinkers,” says Mark Margevicius, a Stamford, Connecticut-based industry analyst. “It resonates with teachers and educators in particular.”

It was a TV ad that first kindled the flames of Randy Ware’s love affair with the Mac. The year was 1984, and Ware, a 31-year-old industrial arts teacher in Dalton, Georgia, was watching the Super Bowl. Not a huge Raiders or Redskins fan, he was glued to the set only out of a sense of duty as an American citizen. Then, during the third quarter, he saw the advertisement. Entitled “1984,” it opened with a vision of a dystopia in which downtrodden drones sat in an arena before a giant video screen. On the screen, an authority figure reminiscent of Orwell’s Big Brother hectored his charges with totalitarian slogans. Suddenly, a female sprinter emerged from the shadows and hurled a hammer through Big Brother’s image, shattering it into thousands of shards and freeing the drones. “On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh,” a narrator intoned. “And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

When Ware first got his hands on this new machine, he was blown away. Here was something completely different. No longer would students have to learn DOS commands; instead, they could simply point and click on icons using a crazy new device called a “mouse.” It was simple, it was intuitive, and—thanks to its revolutionary all-in-one design—it was small and cute.

Ware immediately saw benefits for his classroom. The Macintosh came with all sorts of new, kid-friendly software, including MacPaint, which could be used to draw colorful pictures, and word processing programs that changed fonts with the touch of a button. “I said, ‘That’s what I want,’ ” Ware remembers.

Many models of Macintosh computers have come and gone since—including the LC II, the Performa, and, of course, the iMac—but Apple is still the computing platform of choice for many teachers. Macs beat PCs in every side-by-side comparison, enthusiasts say: They break down less frequently, they require less technical support, and they’re cheaper in the long run. Plus, they’re “kid proof,” making it hard for students to crash or reconfigure the system.

Ultimately, however, the teachers say the Mac’s simplicity frees children to learn. “You work on a PC, but you create on the Mac,” says Marco Torres, a social studies teacher at San Fernando High School in Los Angeles. Torres’ class produced desktop movies using Apple’s Final Cut software, a project that Torres says would never be possible on a PC. “The Mac allows you to focus more on the projects and less on the actual technology.”

But the Mac evangelists’ allegiance goes beyond a rational appreciation for the computer’s practical appeals. Theirs is an emotional connection. “Mac users see their computing system as more than just a computing system,” says Dennis Sellers, a writer for MacCentral. “They tend to see it as a reflection of their lifestyle.”

For the die-hard Mac fan, however, it’s been a rough decade. High costs and poor management nearly sank Apple in the mid-1990s. About the same time, Microsoft rolled out the first of its Windows operating systems, which use the same point-and-click technology as the Mac. In 1997, Apple founder Steve Jobs returned to the company and rebooted its success with the introduction of the PowerBook G3 laptop, the Power Macintosh G3, and the iMac. But the company’s presence in schools has continued to fade. In 1999, the average K-12 school bought 13 Apple computers. In 2000, that number was down to nine, and Apple lost its lead in the education market. It fell to number two behind Dell, a rival PC maker.

Why are schools giving up on the Mac? Industry analysts say competitors such as Dell and Gateway have plunged into the education market, investing heavily in point-of-contact personnel, such as sales and support staff. But many school officials contend their decision is about what’s best for the kids. In a corporate world dominated by Windows-based PCs, they say, it doesn’t make sense any more to teach children on Macs. And maintaining both PC and Macintosh networks is impossible. “In schools, you have a limited staff,” says Donna Yow, director of technical services for Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, North Carolina, which decided last year to do away with its Macintosh computers. “It’s just a battle to keep the staff and parts that you need for both platforms.”

Mac evangelists, naturally, reject such arguments. The Windows operating system is a clunky rip-off, they say. What’s more, technology changes so rapidly that there is no guarantee that any platform will be dominant when kids graduate. “I’m a Macintosh believer,” says Paul Otto, a music teacher at Peasley Middle School in Gloucester, Virginia. “Only exposing kids to PCs is similar to teaching English as the only language.”

Teachers are fighting the PC vs. Mac battle at many levels. Jorge Santini, a technology lab teacher in Van Nuys, California, keeps a white loose-leaf binder on a shelf in his 30-iMac computer lab. The binder—entitled “Why Macintosh”—contains thousands of arguments, culled from the Web, for infidel teachers, parents, or administrators. “If they pooh-pooh one argument, I tell them to read another,” Santini says. “The truth hits them page after page. Compared to the Mac experience, using a PC is like death by a thousand bee stings.”

Mike McLaughlin, an American literature teacher in Wells, Maine, wants to convert his kids to Mac. His classroom sports a brand-new iMac—ruby, to match the school colors—and a host of “Think Different” posters. “Schools are where a lot of kids are exposed to computers. And we can catch them and let them know that, when it comes down to it, Macs just work better,” he says. “The more kids that convince their parents to buy Macs, the greater the likelihood of their being around longer.”

Some teachers are challenging the powers that be—and risking a lot. John Eller, a Des Moines, Iowa, journalism teacher, has been going to school board meetings for almost a year to fight plans to phase out Macs. Using the three minutes allotted each meeting to those who come before the board, he’s presented a sequential argument for keeping the Macs. Eller has been cautioned against making enemies with district leaders, but he’s continuing his quixotic quest in part to defend the autonomy of teachers. “We are creative professionals, not a huge floor of number crunchers on a cubicle farm,” he says.

Jacque Green won a small battle for her Macintosh, but at a cost. Three years ago, when Green started her new job teaching family and consumer sciences at Mid-Prairie High in Wellman, Iowa, she found a PC on her desk. Officials initially refused her demands for a Mac, but they eventually relented when Green promised to take care of hooking the machine to the school’s PC network. Not content to wait for her computer’s delivery, the teacher drove her black Geo Metro 30 miles to Cedar Rapids to pick up her very own bondi blue iMac. Seven other teachers at this small school bought Macs as well, and Green spent an extra two hours a week for more than a year networking the computers and doing her own tech support.

“I really felt it was important to convince them that the Macs could work,” she explains. Green, who took to handing out Apple-related gifts and stickers, eventually earned the nickname “Mac Queen.”

Of course, not all Mac evangelists win the day. Susan Witham has been adviser to her high school’s yearbook staff in Medina, Texas, for four years, and she desperately needs another computer. Her classroom has only two machines, a Macintosh LC580 and an iMac, and she’s pushing for another one. There’s just one problem: The school’s new technology coordinator is not a Macintosh fan. If she’s refused a Mac, Witham says she’ll do without an extra computer. “The year after this one, I can retire,” she says. “When I’m out of here, these guys can do what they want to do.”


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