By Charles Haddad In less than a school year, Apple has clawed its way back to the top of the bell tower in the all-important education market. In public schools nationwide, it has dethroned reigning champion Dell Computer by a margin of greater than two to one, according to the very reputable Quality Education Data, longtime number-cruncher and school consultant.
QED's latest figures show that Apple has between 2.7 million and 3.2 million computers in public schools. That's way out in front of Dell's estimated 1.2 million to 1.6 million and Compaq's 1 million or so.
How did Apple so quickly best a fierce competitor that wields price cuts like a saber? Jobs & Co. can't afford to respond in kind, so it counterattacked by offering schools a compelling idea: Let us build a wireless network of portable computers that when tapped into the Internet, will not only make teaching more powerful but will delight children as well. This network lets students post homework online and administrators automate everything from progress reports to attendance records.
COST-CONSCIOUS. Education is a market Apple must dominate to stay strong. School sales account for 40% of the company's revenue, yet Dell and other PC makers remain an ever-constant threat. And schools are becoming as cost-conscious as corporations. Just listen to what teacher Sara Martin in Modesto, Calif., told Wired magazine recently: "In education, we're so stressed for money all the time, it's hard to know where to invest." Martin said she'd love to buy the new iBooks but worries about how to weave them into the PC network already in place.
Competing on price has never been Apple's forte and never will be. Sure, Macs are no longer as dear as small yachts, but they're still more expensive than your run-of-mill boxy PC -- and well they should be. You're paying a small premium for the added ease of use and for the style. That's why figuring out how to use computers to make schools easier to run and more exciting to attend was such a clever strategy for Apple to pursue. And the schools are buying into it big-time.
It's also an approach that Dell or Compaq will find difficult to ape. Unlike Apple, they control neither the operating system nor software in their boxes -- in short, the computing experience. Apple knows that good schools are not built out of stacks of cheap PCs.
HOT FOR ICE. It has built its strategy on a three-legged stool. The first leg is AirPort, Apple's inexpensive and easy-to-use wireless network. AirPort has dispatched PC-dominated computer labs to the scrap heap of history. Now students and teachers can share files, submit work, and tap the Net from classroom or cafeteria.
The next leg was IceBook, Apple's latest portable computer. It's among the lightest computers the company has ever made -- and schools are snapping them up. Virginia's Henrico district recently bought 23,000 IceBooks.
The stool's third leg was added in March, when Apple paid $62 million for PowerSchool, a leading maker of Web-based school-management software. PowerSchool's products use the Net to automate such everyday jobs as grading, attendance, and meal planning. They can also be used to post newsletters and monitor Internet access.
Together, AirPort, IceBook, and PowerSchool make a system that's compelling for administrators, teachers, and students alike. From their laptops, students can check everything from cafeteria menus to assignments from home or the beach. They can post homework to a shared folder for teachers to grade and then check that grade as soon as it's posted. In fact, schools could do away with report cards. Instead they could post a live mark that adjusts with every assignment.
DOUBLED SHARE. Schools are starting to see that Apple is on to something. AirPort has become the No. 1 wireless technology used in schools. And that, in turn, has helped drive sales of iBooks as well as PowerSchool's software. In less than six months under Apple, PowerSchool has expanded its customer base 50%, to 3,000 schools. Additions include such giants as the Chicago Public School system, the country's third-largest.
In school systems in Fremont Union, Calif., and the Archdiocese of Baltimore, administrators are using PowerSchool in a way that slashes their need for new network hardware, such as workstations. I suspect that these victories will pale in comparison to what's to come with OS X, Apple's new operating system.
Macs may not be the cheapest of computers, but Apple is working to make them the most useful. And that's the key to the company staying at the head of the class in the education market. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online