With practiced flair, Apple Computer Inc. announced its latest school-oriented product, the “eMac” computer, this month. Steven Jobs, the charismatic CEO of the company that once dominated the K-12 computer market, unveiled the sleek desktop machine, which company executives say was designed solely for education. The eMac, according to the sales pitch, has features specialized for schools, child-resistant durability, and a sub-$1,000 price tag that school people can afford.
The latest Mac seems enticing, but will school leaders bite?
Apple is counting on the new eMac, rugged to withstand student wear and tear and tailored for education, to recapture the school market.
The Cupertino, Calif.-based company is trying to reverse a steady decline in its share of the U.S. school market. School districts increasingly are buying computers that run the Windows operating system, rather than the Macintosh systems used by Apple machines.
“Apple’s been in recovery mode, seeing Dell and Toshiba and Compaq create new products and build a strong brand,” said Jim McVety, a senior analyst at Eduventures Inc., a Boston market research firm. “It has [Apple] scrambling.”
Apple’s share of the school computer market has dropped from 37 percent for the 1999-2000 school year, to 30 percent in 2000-01, to 26 percent in 2001-02, according to an annual survey of school purchasing officials conducted by Quality Education Data Inc., a subsidiary of Scholastic Inc.
Apple still vies with Dell Computer to be the individual leader in sales to schools. But the gang of companies making Windows machines, including Dell, has been winning the tug-of-war to have the dominant operating system.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Apple made nearly two out of three computers purchased by schools and pioneered research on ways of using them in classrooms.
After winning the hearts of many educators in those days, the company often tested that devotion by charging prices noticeably higher than those of comparable products for so-called Wintel machines. And Apple’s corporate struggles seemed to threaten schools’ substantial investments in software and training. It also pulled the plug on its popular eMate laptop, and went through a period in which, the company acknowledges, quality was low.
Cheryl Vedoe, Apple’s vice president for education products and marketing, said the company is poised for a comeback because, despite its setbacks, “we’re are still widely regarded by K-12 educators as the ‘thought leader’ in terms of educational technology.”
The company has become healthier in recent years, although the computer industry in general has slumped, yet some school people will need more than a little persuading to buy again. Most worrisome for Apple, some districts have settled on Wintel, as the combination of Windows and the Intel-style computer chip is called, as their districtwide “platform” for instructional and administrative uses.
“Standardization of platform is a huge issue for schools, many of which have lots of different types of computer systems,” said Keith R. Krueger, the executive director of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking. “Obviously, when you’re looking at [total cost of ownership], standardization has been a major thrust in the corporate environment.”
Making the same choice as corporations, which generally have made Windows their standard desktop machine except in specialties involving design and graphics, has seemed a safe bet to many school districts, said Gary Beach, the publisher of CIO Magazine, a publication for information-technology professionals.
“There’s a lot of Apple Macintosh loyalists in education,” said Mr. Beach, who is on the board of directors of the U.S. Tech Corps, a charity that helps schools develop their technology expertise. “But it’s not a question of heart, but of wallet.”
Apples and Oranges
The Fairfax County, Va., and Baltimore County, Md., schools have adopted Wintel as their standard. Both districts still have thousands of Macs, but they don’t plan to buy Apple machines when it comes time to replace them.
“It was total cost of ownership, basically,” said Roger Cooper, the director of information- technology infrastructure in the Fairfax County system. “With no exceptions of any substance, all the education software that runs on Mac runs on Wintel, too.”
He said the 160,000-student district would save significant money by moving to Windows machines—starting with the purchase price. “In pure performance per buck, the Wintel stuff is going to win,” Mr. Cooper argued.
The eMac’s price doesn’t alter that, Mr. Beach noted. “Even the $1,000 price point [for the eMac], you could argue that the eMac is 30 percent higher than a stripped-down Windows PC.”
In addition, Mr. Cooper said, “Macs are not as easy to integrate into the network.”
Greg Barlow, the executive director of technology in Baltimore County, a 107,000-student suburban district that doesn’t include the city of Baltimore, said it is easier to find technicians who have Wintel skills than those with Macintosh skills. Once all that district’s Macs are phased out, the district will save money by not having to stockpile a second set of parts, he said.
But Ms. Vedoe, the Apple vice president, said several trends give a school district reason to rethink leaving Apple out of its standard. For starters, she said, schools are turning to “mobile” computing—laptops and hand-held computers that can communicate over a wireless network.
Both the Henrico County, Va., schools and the state of Maine are buying Apple’s iBooks laptops to exploit that mobile capability.
A Maine Choice
Crystal Priest, the technology coordinator for Piscataquis Community Middle School in Guilford, Maine, said Apples have a strong track record in the classroom. And three years ago, Apple was the only company selling what the 850-student district wanted: a wireless network that would work with low-cost, rugged laptops.
The district has since put iBooks in the hands of all its 7th and 8th graders and their teachers. But while the Piscataquis district has made Macintosh desktop machines standard in grades K-8, it has made Wintel machines the standard in its high school.
Supporting multiple systems may be less efficient, but it is a calculated trade-off, Ms. Priest said. “You need to do some advance planning,” she said, “really need to understand what you’re doing, what sort of program and tools you want each group [of users] to have.”
Besides, she contends, Macs have fewer glitches and thus require less technical support.
Many educators hope that innovations in educational software that operates over the World Wide Web will soon end what many call the Holy Wars between Wintel and Macintosh adherents.
“The platform debate is for a generation of yesterday,” said Mark A. Edwards, the superintendent of Virginia’s 42,000-student Henrico County district, which bought 11,000 iBooks this year and assigned them to high school students. The district, located in the Richmond suburbs, will have bought a total of 24,000 computers for high schoolers and middle schoolers by next fall. (“Student Misuse of School Laptops Forces District to Tighten Access,” Jan. 30, 2002.)
“And the viability of utilization of information is where the real energy is,” Mr. Edwards said, adding that he believes that advances in technology will soon make access to the Web far more important than the choice of operating system.
“The key is that students in the U.S. and the world are going to have the opportunity of having access to information and being able to use it at a level that’s beyond anything possible just a few years ago,” he said.
In the meantime, other school technology officials point to a purchasing strategy they say many districts could adopt to avoid costs of using both operating systems.
The Plano, Texas, district, with 49,700 students and 25,000 computers, includes in all purchases—of both Wintel and Macintoshes—a five-year extended warranty that has the vendor provide all outside support, on a strictly enforced timetable, said James Hirsch, the district’s assistant superintendent for technology.
That approach allows Plano to keep using Macintoshes for the tasks those machines do best, he said, such as graphics and design software, while incurring no additional support costs.
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2002 edition of Education Week as Apple Struggles to Regain Share Of School Market