The Truth About Macs vs. PCs in Our Schools

Dan Knight - 2002.12.04

Gene Steinberg raises a crucial issue in today's Mac Night Owl column. In asking the question Can Apple Regain the Education Market?, Steinberg raises perhaps the biggest obstacle to Apple's growth in the education market - the Microsoft monopoly.

We can argue until we're blue in the face about OS stability, ease of use, out of the box experience, longevity, total cost of ownership, and most of the other issues without making a dent in Mac resistant techs, administrators, and board members. While the Mac has advantages in many areas, these are not the important ones as far as the decision makers are concerned.

Making the Right Decision

When people make decisions for others, they are usually driven by their own motives, which include things like job security. They don't want to be called idiots for making a wrong decision. And for 90% of the world's computer users, anything other than Windows is a wrong decision. Period.

Macs may last twice as long, require less technical support, be easier for students to use, look nicer, and fight tooth decay (okay, that one's a stretch), but it doesn't matter. Decision makers only care about a few things in making the safest decision:

  1. What is the rest of our field doing?
  2. What are other fields using?
  3. What has the lowest initial investment?
  4. What do our techs think?
  5. Will this decision cost me my position?

But Everybody Is Doing It

Once upon a time, the rest of the education market was Apple. But as Apple moved from Apple IIs to Macs and industry began adopting DOS and Windows PCs, the second question became a bigger and bigger factor. After all, if the whole world is using Windows, why should education be the odd man out? In fact, businessmen will argue that not training our children on Windows does the students and the business community a disservice by not training them for jobs in the real world.

The cart comes before the horse. A general education becomes vocational education. And our children learn Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in school instead of word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. Over time, the answer to question 1 becomes the same as the answer to question 2.

Short Term Cost

Total cost of ownership, product longevity, and lower support costs don't mean much when budgets are already stretched to the breaking point. Like businesses, schools will more readily choose a short-term solution that saves money up front and balances this year's budget regardless of the fact that overall long term costs are higher.

We can counter that with all sorts of studies and analysis, but the school board is more concerned with balancing this year's budget than with saving money three to five years from now with longer lasting computers.

The Tech Solution

Apple didn't make a lot of friends among school techs with the iMac. Sure, it was easy to set up - but have you ever tried to get inside one of those things to upgrade RAM, replace the hard drive, or swap out a CD-ROM? Newer models made memory upgrades easier, but the CRT iMac is a bear to get into.

A lot of these same techs had just come from years of trying to make the LC x200 series of Road Apples function decently on school networks, something that simply wasn't going to happen. And before that, they had to work with the versatile LC 630 series, which was abysmally difficult to get inside of without somehow mangling the case and making the faceplate refuse to go back in place.

Yes, Power Macs since the 7500 have been marvelously accessible, but those aren't the dominant computers in most schools. And now a lot of schools are adopting iBooks, which apparently make getting inside the iMac look easy.

If the techs aren't happy - and I've heard from several who are not - management is going to hear about it. If the techs would rather fix a Dell or Gateway than an iMac, that's going to count for a lot.

The other factor is that most techs come out of their technical schools and other training knowing Wintel PCs inside and out. They graduate with the networking and Wintel certifications in place ready to support what they know - and very often they don't know Macs.

The more PCs a school system has, the more PC techs, the more pro-PC bias even without Apple service issues. As someone who spent eight years supporting Macs, I can tell you that no matter how few PCs vs. Macs an organization has, the number of PC support persons will always exceed the number of Mac support staff if there are 3 or more of them. In fact, because Macs are so reliable, most Mac experts end up spending most of their time supporting PCs.

Job Security

For the techs themselves, Windows PCs mean job security. The inexpensive computers schools tend to buy are quite literally cheap, meaning they are more likely to break, meaning the tech support staff will grow along with the number of Windows PCs in use.

For administrators and school board members, job security comes from making the safest decisions. Nobody is going to try to recall the school board or get the superintendent fired for choosing the lower cost solution, especially when it better prepares our children for a future dominated by the Microsoft monopoly.

On the other hand, the Maine iBook decision is constantly coming under fire as being overpriced and wrong-headed. Would you rather spend your time fighting that battle or trying to make a whole school system work?

Mac Benefits

For well-to-do school districts, Macs have the benefit of looking great in the classroom and in the computer lab. Short-term cost is less of an issue, and Apple seems to realize that, so they seem to be targeting schools that can afford the Mac solution. It's the easy market.

Except for that part of the education market, Apple doesn't know how to play the game. Decisions are sometimes made for rational reasons - total cost of ownership - and sometimes for emotional ones - choosing Windows is safer.

Growing the Apple Education Market

The only way Apple is going to grow their share of the education market is by going on the offensive. They have to address the concerns of techs, administrators, and school board members - as well as those of the local business community that benefits so directly when our children are trained on Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for Windows.

Total Cost of Ownership

The Mac's strongest benefit is total cost of ownership, and there are several reasons for it. Macs tend to last a lot longer, tend to be built more reliably, and require less technical support, making them less costly on an annualized basis.

However, they are not cheaper to buy, and cash-strapped school boards are very, very concerned with this year's budget. And the higher the number of computers being purchased, the harder it is for Apple to win the bid (if they're even asked to bid).

Some ways Apple could address initial cost vs. TCO:

The Microsoft Monopoly

That's nothing compared to the cost of addressing the fact that Windows so dominates the home, education, and business markets. Windows is ubiquitous. Isn't it a disservice to not teach it to our children?

No, it's a disservice when we don't expose them to the diversity (a good buzzword to use around educators) of the computing world. There are other word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation solutions. There are other operating systems. If we really want to prepare our children for the workplace of tomorrow, Windows 3.1, 98, or XP is inadequate. By the time they graduate, Microsoft will have reinvented Windows yet again.

To adequately train our children for the workplace - assuming that is even the goal of our school systems - we should expose them to Palms and Pocket PCs and Linux boxen and Macs. Although these don't have the market of Windows, these are the operating systems that point to where Windows will be in a few years. This will also teach our children how to adapt to different platforms, rather than locking them into a single computing experience.

(That's right, I am not promoting Macs as the only systems in our schools. Our kids need to be exposed to Windows, and for a lot of Mac users, that isn't going to happen at home.)

No operating system left behind? ;-)

The Right Choice

In the end, until those who make and implement technology decisions see a real reason to consider anything but Windows, Apple has lost the battle. Sites like Should Our Schools - or Anybody Else - Have Macs or PCs? are a great resource once we have opened their minds (another phrase dear to educators) to the possibility of something besides Windows, but not until them.

"Don't confuse us with facts. We've already made our decision."

Apple's War

Frankly, this is Apple's war, and they seem very selective about which battles they will fight. They love the well-funded districts with broadband Internet that don't balk at the initial cost of Apple hardware. Maybe they are content with those districts and a few statewide initiatives.

Or maybe Apple is hungry enough fight for a growing presence in every school and every school district. The people who gave us the Mac, the 1984 and lemmings ads, the iMac, "Think Different," Apple retail stores, and the switch campaign obviously have the creative resources to become a dominant force in such an important market.

People like Steve Wood, John Droz Jr, Jeff Adkins, myself, and countless others have done our part. We have fought a holding action. We have sometimes been subversive. We have won now and again. We have tried to stem the tide. And we are tired of doing it without Apple's help.

Apple, this is your war. Plan it, fund it, fight it, and win it. Commit to offering the best education solution for the dollar. Enough bombing runs on big targets. We need a Normandy invasion.

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