The iMac: Perfect for Schools

July 1998: Apple has introduced the most appealing educational computer since it introduced the Macintosh LC in 1990.


Apple II systemSince the days of the Apple II (introduced in 1977), Apple has had a strong presence in educational computing. In fact, the Apple II was so entrenched in the school systems, it effectively kept out both DOS computers and Macs for some time.

Apple’s solution to get Macs into schools was the Apple IIe Card for the expansion slot in the Macintosh LC. With this card, the LC could run Apple II software.

Although the Apple II, TRS-80, and Commodore lines have pretty well vanished from our schools, Apple’s Macintosh line has inherited the crown, maintaining a 53% market share* against a horde of competing Wintel systems.


Today’s needs are different. As Apple’s market share has dropped, many school systems have been pushing for a Wintel solution. They reason that because Windows is the standard in the business world, it’s what they should prepare their students for.

Although Mac users realize that Windows becomes more Mac-like with each incarnation of Windows, innovation and interface superiority won’t cut it with the taxpayer or school administration.

Compatibility will.

Our local school system (Grand Rapids, Michigan) seems intent on going 100% Wintel, despite the fact that roughly 80% of installed computers are Macintosh. Several of us are questioning that decision.

Fortunately the Grand Rapids Public Schools seem to have made some really big mistakes, like standardizing on Windows 3.1 and NT, neither of which is fully Year 2000 compliant. That’s our entry point for fighting back.

Why Macintosh?

Apple has designed two incredible computers that address the specific needs of the education market, the All-in-One Beige G3 and the iMac. Both have a built-in 15″ multiscan monitor, stereo speakers, a microphone, a large hard drive, a fast CD-ROM, an Ethernet port for networking, and an easy way to cable the computer to a desk to prevent theft. And let’s not forget the bunny-scorching G3 processor.

Instead of a chaotic cluster of wires, these machines have a power cord and a network cable. That’s all they need in the schools. Two wires.

Better yet, the Macintosh offers something not one Wintel computer offers: the ability to run Windows and the Mac OS.

Although software emulation is slower than a real Pentium, a recent study shows the 233 MHz G3 with Virtual PC equals a 166 MHz Pentium when running AutoCAD, one of the more demanding applications on the market. (In fact, the tester said he found the Mac provided a smoother environment than the 166 MHz Wintel computer he was used to.)

The simple fact is that only one platform runs software designed for both platforms. This allows a school system to protect its software investment in Macintosh software while adding Windows capability.

Other Arguments

The iMac is an exception to the old axiom that Macs are more expensive. Our school systems is looking at a locally built 300 MHz Pentium II clone with an Intel motherboard, 64 MB RAM, a 3.2 GB Fujitsu hard drive, an Acer 32x CD-ROM drive, a 3Com network interface card, a Logitech mouse, a MaxiSwitch keyboard, a Samsung 15″ multiscan monitor, a Radio Shack headphone/microphone, an STB video card, and two versions of Microsoft Windows for just over $1,300 per station.

The iMac offers a 233 MHz G3 (which outperforms the 300 MHz Pentium II). The whole package – hard drive, CD-ROM, Ethernet port, mouse, keyboard, screen, and operating system – is from Apple. No cobbled together collection of components here. At anticipated educational pricing, the iMac with 64 MB of memory and Virtual PC would cost about $1,300 per station.

The iMac, like the G3 All-in-One, has a more powerful processor than the clone, a larger (4 GB) hard drive, and the ability to run Macintosh software alongside Windows.

Instead of buying a locally built clone and equipping it with two operating systems, neither fully Year 2000 compliant, the school system could be buying cutting edge technology with the Apple brand and the ability to run the Mac OS (which is not just Year 2000 compliant, but able to handle dates through AD 29,940) and, thanks to Virtual PC, a variety of operating systems including several flavors of Windows (3.1, NT, 95, 98), OS/2, plain old DOS, and Unix.

Another Consideration

Maybe the schools don’t realize it, but the 80×86 architecture is on its last legs. Intel has announced Merced [later called Itanium], a completely new 64-bit CPU, that will replace the aging 80×86 family in 1999.

The Pentium II finds its roots in the Z80 and 8080, 8-bit CPUs from the era of the Apple II, TRS-80, and CP/M computers. Intel’s 16-bit adaptation of that design, the 8086 and 8088, became the foundation of the IBM Personal Computer. IBM didn’t choose it for performance, but because it was inexpensive. (Besides, who would ever need more than 640 KB of memory!)

For 17 years most of the PC industry has been tied to that decision buy IBM.** The 80286 offered more efficiency and access to more memory. The 80386 had new operating modes that made multitasking much more stable. But each improvement had to be backward compatible with the 8086, with DOS, and with the architectural decisions made by the IBM design team well before the 1981 release of the PC.

Intel has taken the chip and motherboard architecture about as far as it can. It realizes that RISC (reduced instruction set computing) is the only way to improve performance – a decision DEC, Sun, and Apple came to many years ago.

When Intel ships Merced in 1999 (or later), it will change the industry. Just as Apple moving from the Apple II to the Macintosh created an underclass, the Merced will create an underclass of PC users stuck with today’s Wintel computers.

Apple made a very successful transition to RISC architecture in 1994 when the first Power Mac ran practically every piece of old software thrown at it. This is one reason Apple can run the ads claiming a processor up to twice as fast as the Intel Pentium II – RISC is that much better.

It is unlikely that Intel and Microsoft will be able to offer the same level of backward compatibility as Apple did. After all, each update to Windows seems to break a lot of old programs. Windows 3.1 and NT are almost completely incompatible with each other, despite sharing the Windows name. Even Windows 95 and NT are very different, although Microsoft has tried to assure its customers that programs written for Win 95 will also run on NT.

But moving from a 32-bit CPU and operating system to a new 64-bit processor and operating system could be a nightmare, as was the switch from 16-bit Windows 3.1 to 32-bit Windows 95. (Even Apple’s move from 24-bit System 6 to 32-bit System 7 caused some problems, although not on nearly the same scale as Windows 95 did. Apple continued to support 24-bit mode through System 7.5.5.)

Closing Thoughts

  • The Macintosh has always been Year 2000 compliant. Even the 1986 Mac Plus is prepared to handle dates to AD 2019; Power Macs have millennia beyond that.
  • Apple stands behind the entire iMac – it’s not just a collection of parts from several different manufacturers.
  • The Macintosh can run both the Mac OS and Windows. PCs can’t.
  • The PowerPC processor in the iMac is up to twice as fast as a 233 MHz Pentium II.
  • Apple has already made the transition to RISC.
  • Intel’s move to Merced raises new questions about investing in Pentium technology today.
  • Nobody knows how compatible Windows 64 on Merced will be with Windows 3.1, 95, 98, or NT.

In short, school systems would be far better off buying a cluster of iMacs than an equal number of Wintel computers, whether name brand or locally assembled.

The iMac is a perfect educational computer. Bump the RAM, add Virtual PC, and you can offer students the best of both worlds, Macintosh and Windows.

Daniel Knight, editor in chief, MacTimes Network

* Market share refers only to sales for a current reporting period. It does not consider the installed base, just recent sales. Considering the installed base, Apple has a much higher percentage of computers in the schools.

** The most popular alternative to the Intel chips was the Motorola 68000 family of processors, used in the Apple Macintosh, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST computers.

Further Reading

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