Apple’s Education Conundrum

In the world of computer commoditization and consistency Apple Computer has long been the exception to the rule. However, a chasm is on the horizon and some quick decisions need to be made to avoid the fall.

By all accounts Apple’s iBook education program has been a success for those schools and districts who have invested especially since the rollout of the Ice iBook in 2001. The model design has, for all intense purposes, stayed the same, with the exception of processors and a switch to the slot-loading CD-ROM. The design consistency and rugged construction has allowed schools/districts to purchase in large quantities based upon the concept of consistency, similarity, and quality. Teachers and students know that the key placement, ports, power button is in the same place. This sounds rather silly, however, their is a logic in having everything the same for students. No fighting over which computer is coolest. Secondly, is the issue of “bug issues”. Having one design eliminates many headaches. I know this from personal experience at my own school where I deal with only three types of desktops and one laptop design. The time and mental anguish I saved in cutting down from eleven to four has been in calculable.

However, this may all end soon. The Ice iBook design is now four years old, ancient in computer hardware. Apple’s conundrum is whether or not to change the iBook design for education.

The choices are:

New Design – Something new always stirs excitement in the buying community. New is special, new is sheik, new is fresh, new is potential. The emotional side of buying is a key reason why so many companies update their product so often. Freshness brings in both new buyers and repeaters who need a visual update. However, with any new design comes with a shakedown period where bugs can only be discovered thru mass production. Remember the eMac, the first generation model suffered from what was dubbed as “Rastor Shift”, where the screen would roll up. Within a few months the issue was corrected and since that time the eMac has become a great workhorse. The iMac G5 is going thru the same bug elimination period involving noisy fans, as one example.

Same Design – Familiarity breeds loyalty. The iBook has lived up to its end of the bargain, bringing in repeat buyers, myself included. The polycarbonate shell is one tough case. Both of my iBooks have been banged into, dropped, etc. etc.. Nothing has happened to them, other than a key falling off that was easily reattached. The current design is virtually perfect for education. It’s tough, logically designed, has terrific wireless range, and a record of reliability that would impress the most stringent IT manager. On the downside is that it becomes harder to keep sales up as the perception becomes that it is not being updated, and newer designs by the competition has blown by it. The job of the advertising and sales staff becomes harder in order to keep the excitement and energy level up.

Two Laptop Design – Keep the current design for education, rename it the iBookED. Continue to update the speed, etc. Sooner or later, the G5 chip will be able to run in a laptop case. Schools will be able to update without having to deal with the visual differences complaint. Secondly, the iBookED may further drop in price giving schools even more incentive to purchase. At the same time, the consumer division will have the fresh look it needs to keep the excitement in the product going, plus with a profit margin and differences to make it unique.

This same speculation can also be said for the eMac. The future is LCD’s, and schools like any other business, like the idea of the extra room that LCD’s create. One can bet that somewhere in Jonathan Ivy’s design lab is a G5 iMac case with a G4 on the inside. The one-piece design is perfect for schools because of the natural ease of use in having limited cables.

Whatever the end result is, Apple knows it must deliver something that meets the increasing competition in school laptop marketplace.

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