Will Apple be expelled from school?

Survey confirms longtime slide among districts; While some remain loyal, price holds greatest sway over budget-conscious administrators and boards

A recent marketing research survey confirmed yet again what this sort of survey always confirms: Apple Computer Inc. lost its position of dominance in the kindergarten-through-12th grade education market long ago, and is struggling to hang onto what it has left.

Quality Education Data Inc., a Dallas-based marketing firm, released its annual Technology Purchasing Forecast on Nov. 15. The survey of 450 randomly selected public school districts nationwide showed that only about a third of computers in schools today are Macs.

When district officials were asked which computer brand they plan to purchase during the 2002-2003 school year, 35 percent said Dell, with only 21 percent saying they’ll buy from Apple. Although some districts buy both platforms, that means 79 percent of U.S. school officials plan to buy Windows PCs this year.

As recently as 1996, Apple had more than 41 percent of K-through-12 computer sales. A year later, the company's share dropped to 26.8 percent. No year since has shown as dramatic a decline, but the slippage in Apple’s market share has continued.

For the company whose logo was imprinted on nearly two-thirds of the computers in K-through-12 schools in the 1980s, this reversal has been painful -- and embarrassing.

Local school districts reflect national trends.

In Anne Arundel County, for instance, only 750 of 10,250 computers are Macs -- or just 7.3 percent. Macs are more common in Carroll County, comprising 1,800 of its 6,000 machines, or about 30 percent.

Only Howard County echoes Apple’s glory days, with approximately 9,000 Macs to 3,000 Windows machines -- a healthy 75 percent.

"We’re standing our ground," said Carol Fritts, Howard County's coordinator of Media Educational Technology. Macs will remain in the county, she said, because Howard trained many of its teachers on the machines, and they now prefer them.

Converting to Windows also would mean higher retraining and tech-support costs, she said.

"We need it to be as easy as possible," Fritts said, pointing out that the "media specialists" who tend the computers in Howard's schools are not full-time technology-support personnel.

But while few Mac-friendly districts like Howard remain, the national trend is to phase out Macs to "standardize" with Windows.

In Baltimore County, Superintendent Joe Hairston has declared Dell Computer Corp., based in Round Rock, Texas, the "platform of choice." While some Macs remain in the school system, mostly for use in the art and special-education programs, the purchase of new Macs requires special approval.

In Anne Arundel County, Joe Hebler, the manager of applied technology, said that while no systemwide standard has been declared, officials "look at what the equipment will be used for" and try to match it with "what the student will be using in the marketplace in their area of study."

The majority of purchases, as a result, are Windows PCs, with Mac buys reserved for areas focusing on graphic design and desktop publishing -- the only areas where Macs dominate in the business world.

Since education historically has been a pillar of Apple’s success, the company’s ability to sell to schools is of concern to Mac users. Apple’s health -- some would say its very survival -- depends on maintaining a substantial presence in education.

Though Apple declined to comment on the matter, the company has made moves in recent years to try to reverse this slide.

In 2001, Apple bought PowerSchool, described by company officials as "a Web-based student information system for K-12 schools and school districts" that allows parents to track their child’s progress with a Web browser from home.

In response to educators who thought the flat-screen iMac introduced in January was too pricey and fragile for classrooms, Apple three months later debuted the eMac, a sub-$1,000 machine based on the old iMac design but with a 17-inch screen and an improved processor.

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