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  • The Case for an Educational Mac

    June 7th, 2006

    Years ago, when I first arrived in Arizona, I visited the Scottsdale school district, which, at the time, was a showpiece for Mac technology. It has since gone to Windows, but that’s another story replete with the usual amount of political byplay. In the end, they were hoodwinked into thinking that kids should be using the operating system they would be using when they were adults, forgetting that you’re supposed to use a computer to run applications, and the operating system shouldn’t get in the way.

    Anyway, even the school districts in reasonably affluent neighborhoods are strapped for cash these days, although I’m not sure about Beverly Hills High. No doubt Dell and other PC makers have made deals largely on price and the promise of cheap replacements if a computer fails. Into this environment, what does Apple have to offer? Well, the iBook has been popular with many districts, and I’m sure you’ve heard about some of the deals involving thousands of computers.

    But where does the new Intel-based MacBook fit into the same situation? It would certainly seem to fill the bill in many respects, but it’s a little pricey. Worse, the remote control and Web cam are really not appropriate. In fact, I rather think Apple should come up with a version minus these two options in the hope of shaving perhaps $100 off the price, plus whatever quantity discounts they usually offer. The savings of going to a single-core processor, with price cuts imminent because of Intel’s next chip revision, might be insignificant, though I suppose a few dollars here and there can’t hurt.

    In recent weeks, there have also been rumors about a so-called educational Mac, one that would replace the eMac in the lineup. Remember the eMac? It was a good idea, a 17-inch all-in-one that some regarded as the true successor to the original iMac. In fact, for a while, it was even offered to consumers.

    But Apple is way past integrated computers with CRT displays these days, so what approach should they take.? Well, I’m going to forget about any speculative specifics, and give you my own simple solution. Simple avoids the headaches, but after having a MacBook without a few options is only part of the picture.

    As you probably know, the guts of the MacBook and the guts of the Mac mini are kissin’ cousins. So what about a miniature iMac, with a 15-inch LCD with the least powerful Core Duo processor? It would contain AirPort, and gigabit Ethernet, the better to survive in various educational networks. The port connections would be identical to the regular full-sized form factor in all the essential respects. And, as with the educational MacBook, no iSight or Front Row adornments, to keep the price as low as possible.

    Just what would this panel-based eMac substitute cost? Considering how the display costs scale up so massively as a few inches are added, would it be possible to offer one for, say, $799? Remember, we’re also talking about integrated graphics here, no discrete chips from ATI or NVIDIA.

    Before you wrack your brain on the production figures, consider a final possibility, one I mentioned when I first championed a cheap Mac, one I called a “headless iMac” at the time. This was before the Mac mini debuted. At the time, Apple was still busy pouring cold water on the suggestion that they’d enter the cheap PC arena.

    You see, in an educational setting, and many business settings, fact, a Mac mini, minus the Front Row appendage of course, is ideal. It’s small, and lets the IT people repurpose their displays and input devices. Does it really make a difference if a Dell peripheral is wired to a Mac? But that misses one more opportunity for Apple to offer a complete package, and that’s an affordable line of displays.

    No, I do not regard the 20-inch Cinema Display, somewhat overpriced at $799, as practical in those settings. Instead Apple ought to consider a line of 15-inch and 17-inch “Mac mini” displays with special, slim designs to complement. Now it’s true you can get a 17-inch flat panel, with analog rather than digital capabilities, for $150 or so these days, and I don’t expect anything of that sort from Apple. They have minimum standards.

    But, say, all-digital LCD displays at $199 for a 15-inch and $299 for a 17-inch would seem reasonably competitive with the marketplace, though a bit on the high side. The cable lineup could be simplified to offer strictly DVI, without USB and FireWire capability, and that would also cut costs some.

    It would be nice, of course, to see lower prices on the existing Cinema Display line, but that’s another matter entirely.

    Cheaper displays would allow Apple to offer yet another range of packages for schools and businesses that are looking to save some money, and the profit possibilities seem encouraging. Consider how many of you choose other vendor’s displays to go with their new Mac mini these days, and you’ll see what I mean.

    On the other hand, Apple doesn’t like to have too many products in its lineup, so a smaller iMac and a MacBook, both shorn of the digital lifestyle extras, would likely fill the bill.

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