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Apple Will Surely Reap What It Sows on the Education Front

September 01, 1997|Charles Piller

Ah, Labor Day, the most bittersweet of holidays. It confirms that summer sped by too quickly but lets us send the kids back to school. The Mac also is going back to school, according to the new strategic direction announced by Steve Jobs at Macworld Expo last month.

Apple's education roots run deep. As nearly every K-12 teacher knows, in the 1970s and early '80s, Apple's most brilliant marketing campaign made the Apple II computer dominant in the schools. And astonishingly (given that Apple ceased development of the Apple II more than a decade ago), that venerable machine is still used by millions of kids every day. Schools can be slow-moving beasts.

In the last decade, Apple extended its leadership in education in ways that are as unique as the Mac itself. Teachers--the most resourceful untrained support technicians on the planet--best understand the value of true plug and play (unlike Windows' pretensions) and built-in networking.

With HyperCard (the original, Mac-based multimedia authoring tool) and Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (in which Apple gave state-of-the-art equipment to schools and trained teachers to experiment with it), Apple has done more than any competitor to inspire genuinely creative use of technology.

Those are some of the reasons most teachers prefer the Mac and fight with Windows-pushing administrators year after year. So it's easy to see why Apple is returning to its roots--making education, along with content creation, the key for its future.

"It's incredible, the position Apple still has in education," Jobs said last month. "Sixty percent of all computers in education are Apples. Sixty-four percent of computer teachers use Apples. What an incredible legacy to build off of."

Notwithstanding such hyperbolic claims, Windows has steadily eroded the Mac/Apple II presence. Still, Apple remains a huge force in education--a market it must hold to survive and thrive in the future.

How will it do that? Of course, there's the Emate--an education laptop developed from the suggestions of educators--one of the most innovative technologies in ages. Apple sponsors a wide range of teacher-training courses. And it's helping teachers use the Java programming language to create and build small, easy-to-use educational tools--from simple graph and molecular-model generators to curriculum-development tools in a range of disciplines.

And Guerrino De Luca, Apple's marketing chief, told me that Apple will gradually add education-specific features to new Macs.

Is this enough to justify customer confidence? I'm continually asked whether it's safe to buy a Mac. For the average consumer, it's easy to say yes. Even if Apple went belly up next week, there would be independent developer support for the Mac for years. There's a lot of money to be made in an installed base of 20 million users. And in a few years, you'd buy a new computer anyhow.

For the education consumer it's not quite so clear, because schools tend to keep their computers forever. If Apple died, within five years today's Mac would seem as dinosaur-like as the Apple II does now. Still, Apple's education marketing director Jacob Kandathil points out that only within the last two years have software developers in education seen their Mac revenue exceed Apple II revenue. Likewise, education software will be written for the Mac for years, Apple or no Apple.

So on balance, given Apple's financial woes, should parents and educators invest in Apple technology? The Mac is such a good education box I'd say it's worth the risk. And I'd bet that most teachers would agree. But Apple should make it easier on you to justify the choice to yourself and to the school administrators who spend taxpayer dollars.

Last year, I suggested a plan to do this. I called it Kids First 2000. Apple would give away 2,000 computers every month (one Web server and 19 Macs to each of 100 public schools) to schools between now and the year 2000. It would throw in training materials and help organize teams of volunteers to help the schools use the technology effectively. Too expensive? Make school districts that get free machines agree to buy 20 Macs a year for the next five years.

That, along with the development of a network computer--cheap, easy, fast and Mac-like--could make the education community renew its love affair with Apple technology.

So it's your move, Apple. Commit to the schools so they can commit to the Mac.

* Charles Piller can be reached via e-mail at

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