View from the Classroom
Straight Talk About the Education Market
by Steve Wood
October 18, 2002




A few years ago I took a real beating from readers for a number of columns I wrote about Apple Computer and the education market. I had the temerity to suggest that Apple really wasn't actively pursuing the education market and was simply living off its corporate reputation while milking the market for all it was worth.

With the latest rounds of educational sales figures, all sorts of folks are popping up with columns chock full of good suggestions how Apple Computer, Inc. can stop the erosion of their educational sales. While I find it personally gratifying that more folks see things now as I did several years ago, I really should tell the folks writing those columns, "It really doesn't matter."

The sad fact of the matter is that Apple lost the critical mass necessary to stay viable in the education market a number of years ago. It is currently doing little to regain the momentum necessary to be taken seriously as a reliable supplier of computers for education. As PC makers and Microsoft actively courted the education market, Apple chose to continue its policy of premium pricing for its computers, citing total cost of operation figures that few buyers took seriously.

Beyond the pricing issue, Apple's Steve Jobs decided he knew what education needed and that it was the iMac, followed by the iBook, followed by the eMac. Any one of those machines could have been the box that thrust Apple clearly into the forefront of educational sales. Unfortunately, each time, Apple seriously overpriced each product at their respective initial release dates, milking as much short term profit as possible from loyal education customers.

While the iMac gave Apple renewed life in the consumer marketplace, the machine had some serious drawbacks for the education market. Despite Apple's repeated assurances that every school should be wired into a network, many schools still wanted machines with something as mundane as an internal floppy drive. The original iMac also had a nearly useless mouse and a keyboard that many disliked. Possibly the coup de grâce was the changeover to USB-only printing. Going to the cross-platform USB standard was a smart move, but Apple coldly left many of its educational customers holding the bag with many serial port printers the company had sold them over the years. A low cost Apple branded converter could have solved that problem. Apple chose not to supply such an item and added insult to injury by ceasing support for any serial port printing under OS X.

For schools to effectively use the new iMac, they had to have an Ethernet network, possibly needed to purchase at least some external floppy drives, and had to also purchase new printers or expensive adapters for their older printers. All of this happened while Dell and others were offering faster, cheaper, and more feature laden boxes to schools with real human beings appearing in school offices with real demonstration units for folks to fondle. When the PC crowd added USB ports to their motherboards, they wisely kept the old, slow parallel ports around. It just made sense not to purposely hurt your customers.

I won't mention the clamshell iBooks beyond this paragraph, as they simply were never taken seriously by most of the education market. The current white iBook was an immense improvement at least in appearance, but while priced better than Apple's usual initial pricing, were disappointingly too expensive to stem the tide of schools going en mass to the PC side for both laptops and desktops.

Enter Mac OS X

With the advent of Mac OS X, Mac using educators hoped for a modern operating system that would wipe away the stability and networking problems of the classic OS. While the new operating system provided answers for many of those issues, it added a whole host of new concerns. Educational software companies took a wait and see attitude towards OS X and the Macintosh platform in general. Updates and new versions have lagged behind Windows releases or simply not appeared at all on the Mac side.

It took Apple a whole year after the initial release of AppleWorks 6 to finally produce a useable version of the applications suite. Microsoft quickly released a very good OS X version of Office, although still not complete due to the glaring absence of an Access database application for the Mac.

Productivity software companies were slow to release OS X native applications. Quark, the anchor of page layout software, has still not announced a release date for their Mac OS X native version, leaving Apple's OS X efforts adrift with one of its core markets. On the other hand, the next XPress Mac version won't run on the Classic OS, so publishers are going to be forced to make an OS change. Make no mistake about it. If desktop publishers can't automate their operations with a native OS X XPress with its full array of third-party automation extensions, they will find a way to automate those processes under Windows XP!

Educational software concerns with few exceptions simply took a wait-and-see posture on OS X versions. Apple has done little to help those who might produce educational software for OS X. While many older applications run reliably, if slowly, under Classic in OS X, many others simply don't work. Educators using their computers for serious instruction were left with little choice but to stay with the classic Mac OS, despite Apple's dwindling support for the operating system. Apple greatly publicized the "big sales" of iBooks to various school systems and frequently featured articles about students documenting this and that with video and editing it under OS X. The national reality of the need to improve students' mastery of reading, spelling, composition, and math was totally lost on Apple.

In response to the slow, if nearly nonexistent adoption of OS X by schools with the specter of Macs that only boot to OS X in the near future, Apple yesterday began offering a free copy of OS X "to all qualifying K-12 teachers in the United States" at "absolutely no cost to teachers for shipping, handling or postage."

While I'd love to think that the "X for Teachers" program is a wonderful example of Apple Education listening to the needs of its educational customers, I'm not quite that simple. I've seen how Apple listens to its educational customers when they've cried out for competitive pricing, available service parts at a reasonable price, support for necessary software such as AppleWorks, Emailer, HyperCard, Home Page, and others.

Enter Macintosh Hardware That Only Boots to OS X

Out of tune with two of their core markets, desktop publishing and education, Apple chose to initially price its Mac OS X 10.2 upgrade at full price with absolutely no upgrade path for previous users -- private, business, or educational. Further detached from reality, Apple glibly announced the death of the classic OS on September 10, saying "that starting in January 2003, all new Mac® models will only boot into Mac® OS X as the start-up operating system."

While glowing sales figures for the 10.2 Jaguar upgrade have been announced, it has received a cold reception from schools and the desktop publishing sector. Apple is very, very good at putting a spin on apparently big numbers to distract attention from its gaping vulnerabilities. Big numbers on OS X Jaguar sales, big numbers on iBooks in Virginia and Maine, lots of glitz with kids editing video can't shore up Apple's consistently declining sales figures.

Apple Education is giving away copies of Jaguar because they are in a desperate situation. Macs sold after this year will only boot to OS X. Schools have roundly rejected OS X for good reason. Software companies aren't rewriting their educational applications for OS X.

Apple isn't being generous. They desperately must create an OS X software market by radically increasing the installed base of educational OS X users. I've had the dismal experience of trying to get a straight answer from companies whose products I was reviewing about whether a Mac OS X version was in the works. The usual pattern from such companies is to say they're considering it or planning to do it in the next year, with no specific dates available. When put on the spot and forced to give a straight answer, it almost universally is, "Our OS X development hasn't begun yet." The reason stated is usually lack of demand. Also, many of these companies have been burned in the past by failed Apple initiatives.

Now, Apple has a shriveled new sales education market left. Some spin doctors still put their heads in the sand, quoting figures about total computers in use. Such analyses show more Macs in use than any other brand of computer, but conveniently leave out the fact that Apple once owned a majority of the market, rather than a plurality. Worse yet, new computer sales peg Apple's overall marketshare below 5% and its educational sales now lagging far behind number one educational vendor, Dell.

Apple, particularly Apple Education, is in a death spiral.

In response, Apple has of late offered modest price cuts on their hardware, but which still leave it far behind much faster and cheaper computers running the Windows operating system. In the past year, Apple Education representatives have finally quit automatically quoting educational list price to customers and have begun trying to at least give competitive price quotes to schools.

What to Do?

Surprisingly, for Apple Education to survive, something outside the education market has to happen quickly for Apple Computer to survive. Apple must have a Mac OS X native version of QuarkXPress immediately, so that the many Quark extensions writers can rewrite their software for the desktop publishing market. I cannot see how an independent Apple can remain viable without the graphics and desktop publishing markets.

Apple must overcome the institutional arrogance fostered by past and current leadership and realize that "the Apple faithful" aren't so faithful after years of mistreatment. Apple must compete. Apple has to listen and positively respond to the reasonable suggestions of Mac educational consumers. We often see Mac writers make good low or no-cost suggestions for Apple that are either ignored or scorned by Apple. It's one of the little indicators that tells one that Apple really doesn't care about the education market.

I asked several Mac writers to look over this column the evening before publication. While they certainly didn't totally agree with me, they were united in one area: Apple must better compete in price with low-cost PCs. They must also treat their educational customers better. The folks who did the preview are all veterans in education and have shared my incredulity of Apple's treatment of the education market. Apple can still do itself a lot of good by moving on some of these long-standing suggestions.

Apple should price the eMac to compete head-to-head with comparable PCs now! That's a tough one, as noted by Adam Robert Guha in Hey Apple, MHz Matters, because Apple doesn't have a chip that's comparable to current Intel and AMD offerings in speed. While the Mac crowd loves to quote the "megahertz myth," the gap in chip speed between PCs and Macs has become so vast that such arguments are now tenuous at best, if not downright deceptive. But Apple still has a good enough name and there's still enough truth in the Mac's ease of use to propel the Mac back into schools if it's priced step for step with Windows products. Anything less will continue to expose Apple's educational sales to the pummeling they've taken over the last five years from PC makers.

Reverse the OS X-only boot decision. If Apple is foolish (or arrogant) enough to carry out the announcement of new units booting only to OS X, their hardware and software become an instant no-go for educational users with heavy investments in classic software. That's most of us. And don't kid yourself, the classic box of OS X doesn't cut it.

It's already too late for many of the third-party Quark compatible extensions developers, makers of items critical to desktop publishing with Quark, to complete their software before Apple's January OS 9 boot cutoff. Apple risks becoming the first major American corporation to publicly commit corporate suicide by insisting on OS X-only boot systems. The folks who put out your magazines, newspapers, books, and so on won't buy something that won't work. They can't wait forever and eventually they'll need new boxes and will have to look elsewhere than Apple. Apple appears not to be listening.

Offer older operating systems as free downloads. Years ago, Apple released System 7.5.3 as a free download. I've suggested along with others that Apple should also release other old system software as free downloads, particularly Systems 7.6.1 and 8.1. Improving the performance of older Macs still in use only enhances the image of Apple and the Mac OS. The response from Apple Education has been to offer older operating systems at a discounted price to school systems that simply have no money for OS upgrades for aging machines. It simply didn't make economic sense to pay for an older OS for older machines. If any such monies existed, it made better sense to invest it in new hardware with its included newer OS. The specter of old Macs heading for storage and the eventual trash heap is something all too many of us have witnessed. A newer OS would have kept many of those machines, albeit heavily cannibalized, in use for a significant period of time.

Get physically back into individual schools with hands-on demonstrations for school and education individuals sales. Over the years, many teachers have written to me decrying the end of the Apple Day, where the local Apple Rep brought Apple's latest and greatest to an after school voluntary teachers' meeting for school staff to fondle, test, and yes, even place orders on the spot. The whiz kids now in charge of Apple, you know, the stock options crowd, have done away with the personal touch. You can gaze upon a Mac at your nearest Apple Store or regional techie's conference, no matter if they're hundreds of miles away or held during school hours.

Hold a developers' University of X as suggested by Mark Marcantonio in Apple Education's Blind Spot. Developers of educational software need to know that Apple will support their efforts. Considering Apple's behavior towards the education market, the ball is definitely in Apple's court to draw in the developers with some significant level of commitment.

Stop the glitz and sell to "real teachers!" Movie editing looks really great on Apple's web site, but the current national mandate on education certainly has little to do with movie making. However ill conceived we educators think George W.'s No Child Left Behind testing initiative is, we are on a mission of teaching our kids the basic skills they need to survive in the world. There's nothing wrong with the glitz stuff, as long as Apple and Apple Education remember and work to provide the products reading, math, English, science, and social studies teachers really need.

Stop building walls for Mac users to scale. Backward compatibility needs to be constantly considered in new Apple hardware and software releases. Preventing booting to System 9 and earlier is a bonehead decision. Making chip upgrades difficult to impossible just annoys customers. It may drive a few new sales, but I'd suggest it drives more sales to the other platform. If Apple were your lover and behaved as it has, you would have kicked it out of bed long ago.

Fix the Leadership or Change It

As brilliant as some of Steve Jobs ideas have been for Apple Computer and the consumer market, his treatment of schools and education in his current tenure as Apple CEO has been abysmal. Since Jobs regained control of Apple Computer, the education market has gone virtually unnoticed, other than the glitzy big initiatives. Apple loyalists in the education market are an endangered species. It's tough to stay loyal to a platform and company that has screwed you over in so many ways for so many years. Jobs has repeatedly promised big things for education, only to have such statements go unfulfilled or the resultant products be so mismarketed and overpriced as to be almost as bad as no product at all.

Odd thoughts while shaving between paragraphs:

While I began this column back in July, it progressed very slowly until recently. I really didn't want to run another column stating that Apple Education was dying a slow death. I don't like the thought of Apple going down, and I certainly don't need the flames of the "Apple can do no wrong" crowd. But it's gotten to the point that many, even our school's "Evil NT Techie," (who tomorrow is doing a disk format and new install of 10.2 to correct the havoc it created on his dual G4 tower), are asking why I haven't spoken out.

The answers are many. The easy one is that I'm way too busy trying to do my job as a school teacher. Another is that in the interim of infrequent columns over the past several years, I've lost my voice and audience. Why write if no one listens? Those columns that I have written about the education market have proven to be prophetic (no special ability here -- with your eyes open, anyone could see it coming). Those same columns have also been enormously unpopular. Readers write ridiculous flames, and Mac webmasters blackball my work. I have better things to do than to participate in such stuff.

So, why now?

The flippant answer is, if I don't speak out today, it may become moot very, very soon. The long answer is that whether it was just happenstance or my influence, Apple has occasionally responded in the past in a way I had suggested just weeks earlier in a column. Maybe, just maybe, I did a little good in the past and might be able to do so again. As caustic as my comments above may be, I still prefer working on a Mac. I'd like to be able to work on a new Mac in three, five, or eight years from now. The way Apple is conducting itself and its educational market sales, I'm not sure that will be possible. Apple may be a ghost by then.

Update (10/19/2002)

I really should have included this information in the original posting of this column.

While I appreciate and try to answer all emails sent to me about the column, you might also want to visit the Apple Contact page and share your views, compliments, and concerns directly with Apple. I'm not sure it will do much good, but who knows?

Update (10/28/2002)

I hate doing "the readers speak" columns. But...the email from this column was so revealing that I did one anyway. I'll probably hate myself in the morning:-).

See More Straight Talk About the Education Market for some interesting comments from educators and others around the world to this column.

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©2002 Steven L. Wood