Will Apple be expelled from school?

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.

Last month, Apple said it would give a free copy of the latest version of Mac OS X, 10.2 "Jaguar" to every K-through-12 teacher in the United States.

In fact, Apple introduced just last month its "Curriculum Mobile Labs." The software is a cart of Airport-equipped iBooks paired with third-party software that focuses on a specific subject area -- math, reading or science -- not coincidentally the key areas named in President Bush's "No Child Left Behind Act."

Apple has had a few well-publicized successes, namely the sale of 23,000 iBooks to Henrico County in Virginia, just outside Richmond, in May 2001 and 36,000 iBooks to Maine school officials in December.

Vicki Wilson, Henrico's assistant superintendent for instruction, cited three reasons why her district selected Apple's machines over PCs.

First, Apple is an "educator's computer," she said. "We've had a lot of Apple computers, and we're happy with them." Second, Wilson said Macs are easier to maintain, and, third, she said, "Apple has been a good partner."

Mac proponents within schools have sought to bolster Apple by touting its advantages: Macs are more reliable, the machines are easy to set up, Macs have a longer useful life than PCs -- and Mac viruses are very rare.

John Droz Jr., a retired computer executive who is a spokesman for a citizens' group trying to keep Macs in schools in Carteret County, N.C., has led a two-year battle to stop the county board from replacing its 2,200 Macs with PCs.

Droz documented his struggle and his research on a Web site packed with more than 100 pages of information and links to over 400 reports and studies.

His site tackles several common arguments for abandoning the Mac, including:

  • Too expensive: Droz cites studies showing that Macs are cheaper to maintain, with less down time.

  • Students need exposure to Windows because "that’s what most businesses use": Droz counters that schools aren’t workplaces and that children, particularly in the early grades, can learn the same basic computing skills more easily on a Mac.

    In addition, Droz says he plans to keep fighting, but Carteret County has not bought a Mac in two years -- and the situation remains unresolved.

    Mac defenders like Droz face a growing anti-Apple sentiment among the school superintendents and boards. These officials contend that PCs cost less, that Macs don’t work on a Windows network (which isn’t true: Mac's OS 9 machines can connect with networking software, while OS X can connect directly to Windows networks), and that there is a need to standardize on one type of computer to simplify tech-support issues.

    "When the Macs go down, the cost to get them repaired is significantly higher," said Robert Caples, the assistant supervisor of technology services for Carroll County Public Schools. Although Carroll doesn’t plan to eliminate Macs, its goal is to standardize on Windows -- mostly to save money.

    And that concern, saving money, is the crux of Apple’s problem.

    Although people on both sides cite various reasons for keeping Macs or moving to PCs, everyone agrees cost is a major consideration.

    When school districts on tight -- if not shrinking -- budgets consider buying hundreds or thousands of computers, a difference of $200 to $300 per machine looms large.

    As it is now, anyone can buy an eMac for $1,050 from the Apple Store; schools pay $950. When PC makers like Dell offer better discounts on still-cheaper PCs, it’s no wonder schools are moving to Windows.

    Even assuming the pro-Apple camp is right about Macs costing less to maintain over the long term, a huge difference in the initial outlay poses an immense hurdle to penny-pinching administrators.

    "The overwhelming word I get from teachers about Apple Education is that they must do something about competitive pricing," said Steve Wood, a special-education teacher from Indiana, who has written several articles on the topic.

    "They’ve got to start listening to their customers," he said. "The range of complaints and the passion of the writers I hear from reveal real trouble ahead for Apple Ed if something isn’t done soon."

    Two October articles on Wood’s Web site describe his and other teachers’ frustration with Apple, including not just pricing issues but the company’s tendency to remove older technologies from new models, namely serial printer ports and floppy disks.

    Since cash-strapped schools tend to keep equipment until it becomes irreparable, a new model’s inability to work with older, existing equipment creates major headaches.

    Wood also is unhappy with Apple’s push to adopt Mac OS X, since he has found little educational software available for the new operating system. Worse, many of his old CD-ROMs won’t run in OS X’s "Classic mode."

    And even if more OS X educational software existed, few schools can afford to replace shelves of obsolete software.

    While the picture looks bleak, the battle for the education market isn’t completely lost. Educators seem to like Apple’s products, and frequently prefer Macs, but can’t justify their cost to district bean counters.

    If Apple is serious about being a major player in the education market -- and CEO Steve Jobs said just last year, "it's in the DNA of our company" -- then it’s going to have to become very aggressive on pricing, offering steep discounts to its education customers.

    In an unscientific, online survey taken by Business Week in May, 87 percent of those who responded said they would not be upset if Apple started selling Macs to schools for $300 to $600 less than it sells them to the general public.

    If Apple can get closer to PC vendors on price, it can market the Mac’s advantages, such as the ease of setting up wireless networks, as worth a little extra money. But until it starts offering better deals to schools, many minds -- and pocketbooks -- will remain closed.
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