MacInSchool

Further Thoughts on the NetBoot Mac

Dan Knight - 2002.12.23

Last week's Thinking Different About a Low Cost Mac for Education received a fair bit of attention and feedback. Educators' News commented:

I really think Apple needs to just suck it up and give up on their cherished 30% profit margin for education, drop their prices, and sell a whole bunch of Macs to schools. I also know that probably will never happen. Dan's column contains some thoughtful ideas about what a quality, but inexpensive Mac for education should be.

We also received some thoughtful email, such as this one from Bob Ketcham:

A nice thoughtful article... It brought to mind a couple of questions...

  1. Does Net Boot work with an Airport? If not, it should.
  2. How about some low cost student .mac accounts? Say $20 per student? I suspect there might be a little .mac capacity going underutilized since the service went to a paid model. This would eliminate the need for a USB memory drive. With WebDAV the students could access files from home even if their parents cripple them with PCs.

The model you describe is technically advanced, yet clean and simple. In other words, typical Apple. Apple should pursue it aggressively.

It would provide a very attractive price for doing a whole classroom at a low cost and provide a point of entry for their more luxurious offerings such as an iBook for each student to take home.

Since Mac vs. PC education arguments are most often lost on the initial entry level cost, this would eliminate that argument.

Apple should sell the model you have proposed as a per class/lab system. Priced and preconfigured with appropriate software and networking setup. A single AppleScript to run on the Server to set the router address, etc., and we're off.

I don't know if network booting works with AirPort, but I suspect that drivers would need to be loaded before this could work. Which shouldn't be a big deal anyways, since AirPort is too slow (think USB speeds) for this kind of thing. 100Base-T ethernet is the slowest you'd want to consider, and gigabit ethernet would be even better.

Low-cost student .mac accounts are an interesting idea, but at $20 per student that comes to about $500/year per class. It also assumes the school has a broadband connection - which really should be essential these days. And it assumes students have Macs at home to access their .mac space.

A better, no-cost solution would be to make the student work folders accessible from the outside world regardless of platform. Mac, Windows, and Linux users would all be able to log in to upload and download files. This could be a lot more practical (not to mention lower cost) than USB memory drives.

I agree that this is the kind of clever, think different solution that has always set Apple apart from the crowd.

Jeff Gagne sent the following reflections:

Just some thoughts:

  1. This Mac will not be suitable for any kind of video work. 100bt network (even switched) with a mounted home directory will not work for video editing.
  2. Quite a bit of Ed Content is on CD so we MUST have a CD for every computer. Some are ID checked so a disk image on a server will not work.
  3. This is a Lab/Internet machine. With the exception of business classes, and keyboarding, laptops are the future labs are going away in droves.

Desktop sales to Education is down while laptops were up around 30% last year and more YTD. Interesting note there is Apple is #1 in laptop sales to Education.

Though cost is BIG on education I'm seeing more and more things dictated by curriculum needs and this thing won't meet most of them.

Your machine is a computer that schools that have stayed Apple will not buy, as they see the value of a media rich CPU or laptop, it won't sell to Windows schools because it doesn't create a compelling reason to move over. Think software and training costs.

Nice idea but I just don't see it moving the bar.

I don't know how much video editing takes place in the typical classroom, nor how the software handles files in memory vs. the hard drive. But keep in mind that this is a low cost solution for schools that can't afford or don't need Power Macs. In any classroom where editing video might be a significant factor, the school would probably want to use Macs with their own hard drives to avoid significant network congestion.

If, on the other hand, video editing is something Apple wanted to push on such hardware, they could simply leverage their investment in gigabit ethernet.

Educational software that requires students to handle CDs is just asking for trouble. Discs get scratched, dropped, and snapped in half far too easily. I'm sure that if these companies wanted to, they could rewrite their programs to make them work from a server.

As for laptops, that's a different and better solution for schools that can afford them. We're not trying to derail the iBook, which is probably the best education idea Apple has ever had. Yes, laptops are the future of personal computing, but we're trying to create an affordable alternative to $700-1,000 computers.

Think American schools with very limited resources and overseas markets that may not yet have one computer per student. iBooks and eMacs are great, but not every school system can afford them.

Alvin emailed this from the Philippines:

The article of netbooting for an education Mac is a good idea. No more hard disk or CD and makes it more affordable, which is no. 1 schools priority in buying computers to teach. I hope Apple listens.

Problem

Because financially PC has a big lead, it can copy that design again eliminating R&D but even make it cheaper because of that and also make it cheaper with cheaper parts because they know school prioritizes costs particularly the initial lay out of cash - they know that most people not only schools who need bulk numbers of computers look at that first. Hopefully to prevent that evil of copying again by MS (we believe they copied it) on this new improved netbooting, OS 10.3 possibly it should have a fast patent on that but then that doesn't come easy.

Copying advantage

Although copying Apple ideas has it's bad side for Apple, if based on leading the future it's a good thing because if this education Mac is made other's will follow and education as well as offices as it can be applied there will be a better place. For me, Apple is a leader and should not make itself the the cheapest computer but should be what Steve is doing, be the best and be the leader of design in IT industry both software and hardware. It should always be a technology company for the most part but it must be humanitarian as well. To cut more cost and make PC people switch it is good to have a donate the Mac, trade in drive to have discounts by Apple itself. Probably Apple's mission is to lead others to the best design, to have good service through good products before profit.

Thanks for your response from far outside American suburbia. It's not one world, and as Jeff Gagne points out, it's not one education market. The needs of those who edit digital video are very different from those who just want to finally put enough computers in the classroom so they're actually useful to all the students.

As for Windows PCs, what they gain from being cobbled together with standard parts from an untold number of suppliers they lose to the cost of licensing Windows. Cheap is as cheap does, but Windows is the most expensive component in a low-end Windows PC. Because Apple makes the whole widget, this could eventually work to Apple's benefit.

Although there is some innovation on the Wintel side of the street, Apple really is the innovation leader. They made USB a useful standard, not just another port on the back of Windows PCs that nothing plugged into. They created FireWire, which has set the standard for digital video connectivity. They dropped the floppy, a move that one PC maker after another is following. They made editing video and burning DVDs easy.

I think a netboot Mac fits right into that pattern. It would sell Xserves, get Apple in more classrooms, and could pave the way for more expensive Macs being deployed in other areas of the school.

I'm not proposing the NetMac as the only Mac education solution or the best Mac education solution, only as the most affordable prong in Apple's attempts to grow their share of the education market.

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