Mac Musings

Thinking Different About a Low Cost Mac for Education

Dan Knight - 2002.12.17 - Tip Jar

Over the past couple weeks, we've had a great discussion of low cost Macs and the education market on the Mac Web. Lots of different ideas have been floated, and a few words of caution have been posted as well.

The simple fact is that Apple needs a lower cost computer for the education market, one that will replace the classic 15" CRT iMac over the coming years. Without a desktop machine it can sell for under $700 to schools in quantity, Apple will continue to lose market share to Windows PCs.

The same applies to the home, small business, and corporate markets, as well as higher education. The more costly the Mac, the less likely it is to be adopted in a world already dominated by low-cost (and often cheaply built) PCs.

Perception

But Apple can't simply repackage the guts of an iMac or eMac into a box and run with it. As Chris Lozaga reminded us yesterday, Apple tried that and fell flat on their face. Creating Performas for the home market, LCs for education, and regular Macs for the rest only confused the market.

Apple is a premium brand, and just as Cadillac has had pathetic results trying to sell a budget Cadillac (a contradiction in terms as far as most consumers are concerned), Apple can't simply throw together a low-cost model. It has to be quintessentially Macintosh, or the market will see it as just a cheap Mac.

Don't get me wrong. Apple has had some horrendous marketing disasters in the cheap Mac department (the 8 MHz b&w Classic and bus-crippled 16 MHz LC in the era of the 25 MHz IIci and 40 MHz IIfx, the x200 series in the early PowerPC era), but they've done some things right:

  • The Apple IIe card for the LC let schools migrate to the Mac without leaving their Apple II software behind.
  • The Performa/LC/Quadra 630 with more AV options than you could shake a stick at and a nice price tag.
  • And, of course, the iMac, iBook, and eMac.

What separates the winners from the losers? Meeting real needs with well designed solutions at reasonable prices. By 1990, 8 MHz Macs should have been discontinued, not overhauled. The architectural foibles of the x200 series should never have happened. But an Apple II on a card, sound and video ports on a low-end computer, and the all-in-one simplicity of the i-models were on target.

Apple needs to address the needs of the education market by designing a real solution for real needs. That doesn't mean crippling an existing model so it won't cannibalize sales. It means designing the right computer for the market.

Reality

The $999 12" iBook is practically perfect in every way for consumers. Compact. Portable. Lightweight. Affordable. Powerful enough. And it's a nice, albeit not particularly inexpensive, solution for schools.

The $799 CRT iMac may seem like a dinosaur that Apple would just as soon kill off, but until there's a lower cost replacement available, Apple should keep this affordable all-in-one solution available.

The future belongs to the G4, Mac OS X, and Quartz Extreme, so any computer designed for any market should be created with that reality in sight. The G4 has a more efficient memory bus than the G3, and Radeon 7500 and 9000 graphics really make Jaguar sing.

To do it right, every new AppleDesign should be based on the G4 (at least until a G5 or IBM's new 970 chip is available). It should have the 32 MB of video memory required for really good Quartz Extreme performance. And it really ought to come with no less than 256 MB of memory with a memory expansion slot so it can run Jaguar well and run classic mode with decent efficiency.

That's our hardware baseline: a G4, 256 MB RAM, Radeon 7500, 32 MB VRAM.

Does it need a hard drive? No, that's not a stupid question. Macs have supported net booting for years. If each classroom has an Xserve and is wired with 100 Mbps ethernet, booting from the server and saving files to the server could be a cost effective alternative to 20-30 little Macs each with its own hard drive.

Does it make economic sense to replace two dozen $50 (estimated net cost) hard drives with a $3,000 (end user cost) server? It might if that knocks $100 off the end cost of each computer. It does if it reduces the end cost by $150 or more. And maybe two or three classrooms would share a server - I don't know how well or poorly Xserve would handle 40-60 concurrent net boot users.

Does it need CD-ROM? No, that's not a stupid question either. Macs have FireWire. Instead of building a CD-ROM into each and every computer in the classroom or lab, Apple could provide the school with a free bootable external FireWire CD-RW or Combo drive for every 8-12 computers purchased. Two or three per classroom should be sufficient. And this gives us another reduction in the net and end user cost of the new Mac.

Apple's Pro Mouse and Pro Keyboard are works of art, but we live in a world where budget minded PC users can buy a keyboard and mouse with a $20 bill - and have money left for lunch. Apple could probably do some trimming here to get the cost of the keyboard and mouse down, maybe shaving $50 from the end cost of the system.

The computer wouldn't need much in the way of a power supply with no hard drive to spin up, no internal CD-ROM, no PCI cards to support. It should provide enough power for at least one bus-powered FireWire device, but that's about the extent of it. Power the motherboard, several USB ports, and one bus powered FireWire device.

How much do you want to bet Apple could sell a box like this for $400 and make a profit?

Other Considerations

Because this Mac could work with any monitor, it would pretty much destroy the education market for the CRT iMac and reduce the market for the entry-level eMac and G4 iMac in schools. For those involved in media creation and burning CDs, though, the more costly models will remain the attractive option.

With no spinning hard drive, noise and heat would be greatly reduced. And one less thing to worry about if the computer gets dropped, knocked around, or otherwise abused.

No internal CD-ROM drive for students to break. That's got to reduce support costs.

And it would not be an attractive target for thieves. Without a hard drive, it would be awfully hard to fence.

Students could use those USB memory drives for storing files - or iPods, if they have 'em.

Marketing

We've eliminated the need for AirPort by relying on 100Base-T ethernet for booting. We've taken out the cost of hard drives and CD-ROMs. We've reduced the power needed, which means a smaller, less costly power supply (maybe the same power brick the iBook and PowerBook use?). We've eliminated any expansion options inside the box beyond adding one stick of memory.

And now we've got a minimal computer that's specifically designed for the needs of the education market. This thing could be tiny, so Jonathan Ive would have all sorts of creative options for designing it. If the power supply is external (which has its pros and cons), the whole computer could be smaller than an iBook.

I'm thinking creative design possibilities. Maybe a white disc 10" in diameter and 2" tall that's strong enough to support a 21" CRT monitor. Or maybe a 6" translucent white cube with ports on each face - power, video, FireWire, USB.

Or just build the whole computer into the keyboard, like the old Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari ST series, Amiga 500, and a few moderately successful PC clones.

The whole thing would just cry out quality and the Apple brand. This wouldn't be a cheap Cadillac; it would be a Mac that's just right for one of Apple's biggest potential markets.

But most of all the individual computers would be dirt cheap. Schools could use them with existing monitors, cheap new CRTs, or low-cost Apple branded LCDs. With net booting, the cost and time involved in adding another computer or two to a classroom could be measured in hundreds of dollars and minutes.

Techs would love the new design, because Apple would have to make this case easier to get into than the old CRT iMac. And they wouldn't have to lug a 35-40 pound computer to the service bench, just a 5 pound or so computer. Of course, there's also very little to go wrong with such a simple computer.

We've created something uniquely Macintosh that meets the needs of a specific market without cannibalizing sales of the iBook or desktop Macs with CD and/or DVD burners. And we've created it in such a way that it would be very affordable - and not very lucrative for home or small business use.

The only problem I can see is business getting wind of this and wanting to deploy low-cost Macs and Xserves to replace aging Macs - and even Windows systems. And we wouldn't want to see that happen, would we?

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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