MacInSchool

Macs for Schools: The eBook

Dan Knight
2001.05.09

From a value perspective, it's hard to imagine a better laptop deal than the new $1,299 iBook - unless you're an educator or school system and can buy it for even less.

Still, there are those who find the new iBook too expensive for the education market. That's not because the iBook isn't fairly priced, but because affordability is a different issue. (For more on that, see Never mind. Apple Education probably is dead.)

Economic Realities

Schools usually dozens, hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of computers at a time. The recent order for 23,000 iBooks from Henrico County Public Schools is a case in point. Even at the school price of $1,199, that's a $27.6 million dollar contract for Apple. That's a big chunk of change.

For schools, the fact that the new iBook sells for $200 less than the old iBook has got to be a huge plus. The "iceBook" is plenty fast, comfortably small, and relatively affordable.

But schools are always trimming budgets. Could Apple create a lower cost version of the iBook for the education market?

The 2001 eBook

Yesterday we suggested that Apple could trim $100 or so from the base iMac by eliminating the internal modem and CD-ROM drive. That's not an approach you can take with a laptop, since you want modem access to the Internet on the road.

It might be feasible to eliminate the CD-ROM drive, especially in a school setting. By making CD-ROM, DVD, CD-RW, etc. an external option, Apple might trim up to $100 from the selling price.

That's a step in the right direction, but it still leaves us $99 shy of the thousand dollar mark. Is there anywhere else Apple can trim costs?

I think so. Although the 1024 x 768 display in the new iBook is stunning, it's undoubtedly more expensive than the 800 x 600 display used in the old iBook. And since both are 12.1" screens, it should be possible to create an even lower cost iBook by using the less expensive 800 x 600 display.

Let's call an iBook with no CD-ROM drive and an 800 x 600 display an eBook, with the "e" standing for education and economy. Otherwise identical to the new iBook, I think Apple could sell the eBook to schools for close to $1,000. (Yes, someone else is using the eBook name. I'm just using it as shorthand, not as a definitive product name.)

Selling the eBook

We've created a very cost-competitive computer for education, but we need to sell it to schools. That's often an uphill battle, and I see no need to rehash the Mac vs. Windows debate (John Droz has done a great job with Should Our Schools (or Anybody Else) Have Macs or PCs?).

Instead, we need to address the peculiarities of the iBook/eBook vs. Wintel laptops.

No Floppy

Floppy drives are no longer considered essential in the Windows world, especially on lightweight or low-cost laptops. They are becoming an option on more models every month - a trend Apple began in 1998 with the iMac. (Okay, nit pickers, Apple first did it with the PowerBook 100 in 1991.)

Floppies also make it very easy to transport files between home and school, which may mean unwanted or illegal transfer of software. By eliminating floppies, schools reduce the likelihood of software license violations and unwanted software on school property.

Before the Internet, floppies were the primary means for distributing viruses. By making the floppy an external option, it becomes that much more difficult to move a disk- or file-based virus between computers.

No CD-ROM (eBook only)

By not including a CD-ROM drive in the eBook, Apple would make it that much harder for students to install unwanted/unauthorized software on school computers. They wouldn't be able to rip MP3s from the favorite CDs on the school laptop. They wouldn't be able to bring in games from home.

By giving buyers the option of external CD-ROM, DVD, CD-RW, etc., the school can decide which technologies are available and where. A classroom might have 2-3 CD-ROM drives for installing software and a Combo Drive so the teacher can archive files and run DVDs.

If anything, removing floppies and CD-ROM drives from school computers is a benefit: it protects the system setup, prevents unauthorized software transfers, and reduces the cost of the computer itself.

Only an 800 x 600 Display (eBook only)

Windows people live in a different world, one where fonts are much bigger. They really need a 1024 x 768 display to see the same amount of information on the screen as Mac users have on an 800 x 600 display.

If you have access to both Windows and Mac OS machines, run a word processor with 12 point type and see which displays more, Windows at 1024 x 768 or Mac at 800 x 600. Do the same with a spreadsheet and any Web browser other than Internet Explorer 5.0 for the Mac (which is designed to give Mac users the same grossly large fonts that Windows users are used to).

You'll find that the Mac displays more information on the smaller screen than Windows does on a larger screen. It's not intuitive, but many aspects of the Mac/PC comparison are not intuitive.

Mac Advantages

Perhaps the biggest plus for any current Macintosh - AirPort. By installing one or more base stations, any recent Mac accepts a $99 AirPort card for wireless networking. No need to pull wires. No need to put the computer where there's an ethernet port. This could save thousands upon thousands of dollars in wiring costs. It means students can take an eBook to the library for research, into the lab for taking notes, or into the lunchroom to catch up on a project.

Portable Dangers

There are reasons schools might consider desktops preferable to laptops: lower cost, less likelihood of being dropped, and reduced portability among them. It's much harder for someone to sneak an iMac out of school than an iBook.

Another very real danger, one we've experienced at home twice in the past year, is liquids. Spill a soft drink into a desktop's keyboard, and you can replace it for a song. Spill that soft drink into a laptop, and you can plan on replacing the whole computer. (Okay, we managed to salvage parts of the PowerBook G3 Series and may salvage some parts from the Acer, but so many expensive components get ruined that it's cheaper to buy a new computer.)

I haven't seen the new iBook yet, but it doesn't sound like it's any better protected against spills than previous models. That's one thing Apple might want to address next time around.

Portability has some benefits and some drawbacks. For cases where it makes sense, an eBook for about $1,000 would undoubtedly find a lot of interested school systems.

Nearly Perfect

The iBook is nearly perfect as an education computer, but it's a bit rich for some school systems. And if you think the $1,199 (school price) iBook is a good deal, a $999-1,049 eBook would be even more attractive to schools.

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