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A Final Blast for 2000

December 31, 2000



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With all of the recent bad news concerning Apple Computer's decline in the education market, you might think I'd publish a column entitled "I told you so!" Actually, that was the temporary title when I started writing this column in September. Unfortunately, I can feel no sense of glee or justification at having predicted Apple Ed's decline, as I received a notice in my school mailbox just before Christmas vacation which contained the following:

"In the future we will be adopting one system (probably PC) for the corporation."

The statement above came in one of our general memos from the boss that detailed the replacement of the ancient Macs in the elementary lab with 17 new PCs. Apple Ed probably never got to bid on this sale. Their previous statements and attitude had totally alienated our technology coordinator, not to mention myself. Also, the teacher now in the lab is a PC person through and through. Her husband is president of the school board! She got the system she wanted.

When one moves past the PC prejudice, Apple Ed's past arrogance, and the nepotism, Apple still didn't stand a chance. If there was a build-to-order option for the $799 entry level iMac, it still would come in second best on a paper and pencil cost comparison with the computers purchased.

I knew all of this was coming for my school (and others). Our principal let it slip in August that an administrative decision had been made to move to one platform -- PC. While those of us listening offered to hand the poor man his head for such idiocy as adopting one computer platform purely for the convenience of the technology coordinator, we also didn't immediately mobilize to lobby for Macs in our school. We were too busy doing other things, such as teaching kids to read and cipher. I'd already quit doing any computer service outside my classroom this fall for that reason.

I've repeatedly and publicly expressed my concerns about Apple's neglect of the education market, most recently in a July column that wound up with the following admonition:

It's time for Apple Computer, Inc. and its chip producing partners to play some serious catch up in several areas. From the smoke and mirrors of OS X being available "this summer" (September?), and the lack of any megahertz improvement in the G4 chip, it's pretty clear that the Macintosh platform is lagging way behind its Microsoft/Intel/AMD competitors.

A year ago, I'd warned that Apple's lackadaisical attitude toward their once dominant education "core" market was rapidly eroding that market. In Is Steve Fiddling While Apple's Ed Marketshare Burns? I upset a whole bunch of flamers with my conclusion:

While things currently look better for the Macintosh world in general, make no mistake about it. Apple's once secure education market dominance is burning, and it would appear Steve Jobs is just standing around toasting marshmallows by the flames.

I followed up that one with a February warning about Apple's incredibly arrogant attitude toward their education "core" market:

Apple has to move, and move very, very soon if it is to remain a viable entry in the educational market. Trading the ed market for a larger portion of the consumer market may have been expedient when Apple had one foot in the grave. Now that Apple is thankfully once again healthy, it's just plain silly to keep ignoring the education market.

Following the recent news conferences concerning Apple's reduced sales and profit figures, it's interesting to note that Steve Jobs only made vague reference in passing about expected improvements for the education market.

It's not that I have some special crystal ball or anything like that concerning Apple and education. All one has to do is take a quick peek at Apple's education pricing of their entry level iMac to see that Apple really isn't committed to maintaining their stake in that market. Apple generously offers schools, students, and educators exactly the same price as anyone else pays for the $799 iMac. While the more expensive iMacs, iBooks, towers, and cubes have a modest price reduction for education, Apple has made it pretty clear through their educational pricing that this is a market that really doesn't matter to them.

Add to the pricing problem the dismal state of Apple's flagship application suite, AppleWorks 6, and the total absence of the promised companion Windows version, and it doesn't take any special insight to realize that Apple has committed its resources elsewhere. AppleWorks 6 doesn't. Run it in OS X, run it in the Classic shell, or run it in OS 9.0.4 and enjoy it for up to a full ten minutes before it crashes!

Apple apparently has decided to tough it out and ignore the cries and pleas from users to fix AppleWorks. They seem far too busy working on their flashy new operating system whose GUI no one really likes very well to have time for the core markets that keep them in business!

What to do?

Probably the first order of business for Apple is to evaluate whether the education market is an area where they can be successful in the future. Ouch, it hurts to even say it. But Apple has an uphill battle in just maintaining their current share of the education market. Making any inroads into a now PC dominated market will only be slightly easier than in other markets.

Apple will have to make a substantial long-term commitment to education far beyond what it is currently doing. Whether Apple can afford such a commitment is a matter of speculation for those of us outside of Apple Computer. It also remains unclear whether Apple has the heart to make such a commitment. Apple once owned the educational market and simply threw that lead away.

Apple's ace in the hole is its good name in education. The good will generated by years of excellent, if overpriced, machines is quickly evaporating in a school climate dictated by accountability (test those kids!) and bottom line initial costs. If Apple hopes to trade on some of its former good will, it must move dramatically and quickly.

What can Apple do to stay alive in the educational marketplace?

First, cut the price on the entry level and all other Macs for education markets.

Second, cut the price again. Apple is known for their high profit margins and corporate greed. There's probably still fat after any price cut. Apple needs to bite the bullet and cut ed prices to the absolute bone to have any ghost of a chance of remaining viable in the ed market.

Third: Get the word out to schools in an effective manner that "Apple is back and we want your business."

Fourth: Fix AppleWorks, and get out a Windows 6 version as well.

Fifth: Seriously consider the ramifications of the current Aqua interface (MacOS X) for elementary student users.

Finally, Apple needs to truly appraise what the education market wants. For the past 28 months, Apple has insisted that the iMac or a minitower more than meets the needs of educators. The marketplace has spoken and clearly rejected Apple's offerings in favor of faster, cheaper, more feature-laden PCs.

Apple must introduce a line of computers for education in the image of the LC III, LC 575, and G3 All-in-one. It doesn't have to be an all-in-one, but it must take into consideration what students and educators want to do with their computers. And, it has to be priced to beat PCs on cost comparisons.

Some other stuff:

Apple might be well advised to take heed of the national sense of alarm about public education. Editing video isn't exactly what mainstream educators, parents, and the general public are concerned about. The Apple II with the wealth of reading and math software that surrounded it would appear to have contributed far more to education that an iMac DV set up for video editing will today.

Several years ago I was gratified to see that Apple released System 7.5.3 for free download. I'd gone on record some months before with the suggestion that they release both System 7.5.3 and 7.6.1 as free downloads. I anticipated that Apple would follow up this PR coup with the release of 7.6.1 as a free download when a future new system was released.

It never happened. In fact, Apple seemed intent on punishing vintage Mac users by cutting off support of older machines, making users of vintage Macs search the "computer junkyards" of the internet for used parts.

While some writers have speculated that the longevity of Macs is one of Apple's biggest sales problems, I would suggest just the opposite. A thriving base of long lasting Macintoshes with new service parts available at a reasonable cost is one of the best advertisements Apple can have.

Therefore, Apple needs to make those older Macs run as well as possible. Releasing System 7.6.1 and possibly even System 8.1 for free download certainly wouldn't hurt. While I don't expect Apple to resume manufacture of parts for the older Macs they have abandoned, I'd certainly recommend Apple not cut off any more currently supported hardware.

Am I a closet Apple basher?

Maybe! Where they need it, I'm more than happy to give Apple a swift kick where it hurts...if it will help. Thus, one or two or so readers have written asking why I no longer publish a regular weekly column. Hey, I can talk to myself in the shower. I don't need to waste my time and web bandwidth with advice for Apple. Steve, the famous one, knows all, sees all, and controls all. And this time he's really blown one of Apple's longtime core markets.

Apple almost certainly will never regain a plurality in educational sales. Their once near total dominance of the education market is an unreachable goal. But there is a sizable portion of the education market still willing to consider Apple's offerings if Apple gets serious about providing quality products at competitive prices.

And...Apple must do the impossible. It must showcase its products and their superiority over the competition at competitive prices without alienating school techies, administrators, purchasing agents, and school boards with an overbearing, arrogant attitude. Apple never could afford its legendary arrogance. Now, more than ever, an entire market hangs on Apple's ability to produce a superior product (no sweat) at a reasonable price (not seen since the LC III) without insulting prospective educational buyers with their sales pitch.

My conclusion:

Apple will fluff the ed market once again...and lose it. They'll make a few modest moves that appear they are making an effort in that market. In reality they will continue to trade on what remains of their good name by offering yesterday's technology at premium prices. I've heard Steve Jobs's empty promises before on what Apple is going to do for education.

I wish I were wrong, but I suspect that Apple will simply let its education market die a slow and lingering death. Apple lacks the heart and stamina to retake the market.

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©2000 Steven L. Wood