Ed-Tech Policy

Cheaper Quasi-Personal Computers To Be Marketed to Schools

By Andrew Trotter — May 31, 2000 3 min read

Personal computers continue to get better and cheaper, but many schools still can’t afford enough of them to provide the technology-saturated educational environment they want.

A new company thinks it can help educators overcome that hurdle by selling them an even cheaper device that does just a part of the PC’s job.

The New Internet Computer, unveiled earlier this month, costs $376, shipping included, and reportedly navigates the Internet just as well as machines costing hundreds more.

Without a monitor, the price drops to $199—which can appeal to districts that have surplus monitors from decommissioned PCs.

“Schools are crying out to get inexpensive computers,” said Gina Smith, the chief executive officer of the New Internet Computer Co., based in San Francisco.

“Think of it as a computer designed for Internet and e-mail access,” she said.

The device, known as an NIC, will be marketed primarily to schools. Larry Ellison, the chairman of software giant Oracle Corp. and the New Internet Computer Co.'s primary owner, announced recently that he will donate more than $100 million worth of NICs to schools, starting with 1,100 in Dallas.

Just the Basics

The NIC looks like a personal computer, with a keyboard, a CD-ROM drive, and speakers. Under the hood, it has 64 megabytes of memory and a 56 kilobit-per-second modem—features that can deliver the same sort of online experience as a PC.

What the NIC lacks—providing the key to its low cost—are some of a PC’s priciest components: a floppy disk drive, a hard drive, and the Windows operating system.

Instead of Windows, the NIC uses Linux, a free operating system that has become popular among computer enthusiasts.

The lack of a hard drive means that Linux, the Netscape browser, and some basic software that the device needs to operate must be stored on a CD-ROM, which comes with the machine.

Schools can arrange to have a limited amount of software—such as an Internet filtering program, added to the disc, which the company updates periodically.

The NIC itself has no other place to store useful software, such as a word processor or educational games, or downloaded information and images collected on the World Wide Web—except for browser bookmarks, which go into a type of storage called flash memory.

But that’s where the rise of online software applications could come in handy. Some Web sites allow registered users to access many applications, including word processors and e-mail, for free.

Other Web sites offer data-storage services. I-drive.com, for example, allows users to set up a free, secure account, accessible anywhere via the Web, to which they can save up to 50 megabytes of personal data files and an unlimited number of Web pages, according to Tom Cramer, a spokesman at the San Francisco-based company.

Ms. Smith said school districts could also set up applications and data storage for students and teachers on their own network servers.

Fifty NICs arrived early this month, courtesy of Oracle’s Mr. Ellison, at the 687-student Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas.

Principal T. Andrae Rhyne said the devices have performed well, and are being used first in English classes, to be followed by social studies. Each room will now have three of the Internet-connected devices, in addition to two PCs.

“English and social studies have in some instances been slightly left out” of the school’s increasing use of technology, he said. Now, he says, “when students are writing research papers for English, they can go on the Internet.”

But Stephen Baker, a market analyst at PC Data Inc., based in Reston, Va., cautioned that investing in the NIC devices could be a gamble, unless the school district also had a reliable computer network that could handle heavy Internet traffic.

“And there aren’t applications providers [on the Web] that are offering Reader Rabbit,” he said, referring to the popular educational software product.

Mr. Baker said PCs or laptop computers might offer schools a greater value for just a few hundred dollars more, because of the broader range of tasks they can perform without being online, not to mention the laptop’s portability.

A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as Cheaper Quasi-Personal Computers To Be Marketed to Schools

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