The Educational iMac: A First Step or a Trend?

July 6th, 2006

After I suggested that Apple ought to consider providing cheaper Macs with fewer options, up comes a version of the iMac earmarked for students and teachers. At $899, it replaces the eMac, the final true descendant of the original iMac and the last CRT-based product in Apple’s lineup.

It didn’t take a lot of design savvy to shave the cost of the entry-level iMac. First ditch the SuperDrive in favor of a 24X combo drive. Cut the hard drive’s capacity in half, to 80GB, and bounce the Front Row remote, since it is apt to be lost or stolen in a classroom environment. Since you don’t expect students to sit there playing 3D games when they are supposed to be learning about reading, writing, and arithmetic, use Intel’s integrated graphics instead of a dedicated or discrete chip. Yes, the iSight camera remains, but when you factor in a standard educational discount, the price is reduced by some $300.

No big deal, you might suggest. In fact, the rumor sites sort of had it right this time, with suggestions that a special educational model would debut in time for school systems to place their orders. However, it wasn’t a new form factor, such as a 15-inch display to keep the price down. Remember, the eMac was also 17 inches.

This, however, is just the starting point, and Apple would do well to provide cheaper versions of the Mac mini and MacBook as well. Sure, there’s already a small discount if you buy from Apple’s educational store, and school systems will get much better pricing when they buy several thousand units at a time. But little things count as well. Of course, there isn’t so much to discard from these two models. They already have combo drives and integrated graphics and shaving space from the hard drives may not be so good an idea, unless they will rely largely on network booting in classrooms. In that case, going to 40GB drives and dispensing with the remote might bring prices down another $75 to $100.

I gather Apple must regard iSight as a potential educational appliance, so it isn’t messing with that, although I can see where its elimination might be required as a further cost-cutting maneuver. If Intel continues to drop prices on its Core Single and Core Duo chipsets as production expands on the Core 2 Duo line, there may be another source of price reductions.

At the same time, there is no advantage to removing bundled software. Production costs don’t change, except for possible licensing fees for third party companies, which are not all that high, since most of the stuff comes from Apple.

Shaving features, of course, is a common technique in the PC industry that accompanies aggressive price-cutting. That’s how Dell manages to construct those special configurations to hawk on their TV and print ads, but when you click Customize, you’re in dangerous territory there. Suddenly, you realize that even a decent warranty may come at a price, and a short session of checking boxes inflates the totals considerably. At this point, I suppose, Dell figures the customer completely believes the illusion that money is being saved, so it doesn’t matter. Besides, those options are critical to the company’s bottom line. Profits from the bare bones PC are minimal or non-existent. They are just loss-leaders to entice you to buy more stuff.

Unfortunately, that also contributes to the illusion that Macs are more expensive than comparably equipped PCs. There are credible arguments about allowing you to eliminate certain features to save a few dollars, but in the end, it’s the perception, and not the reality. Beyond cutting a few frills here and there, all Apple could do to really keep the prices down is to reduce profit margins, and the stockholders won’t sit still for that.

In addition, I doubt those softball “Get a Mac” ads are going to change the perception that Macs are expensive. Here Apple might do well to consider some print ads with direct comparisons between a Mac and a PC from Dell, HP or Gateway, for example, with the same options. Show what the prices really are when you match things up as closely as possible. It won’t help for broadcast, but it might alter a few perceptions.

The other factor is total cost of ownership, which includes support and expected downtime over the life of the system. Here Macs traditionally have a major advantage, but this concept is doubly difficult to convey in 30 seconds or less, or in a paragraph or two. That’s too bad, but that’s how it is.

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10 Responses to “The Educational iMac: A First Step or a Trend?”

  1. Dave Barnes says:

    You wrote: “Remember, the eMac was also 17 inches.”

    Yes, but the eMac 17-inch was a CRT. So it was actually equivalent to a 15-inch LCD.
    The new edu Mac has a larger screen.


  2. Yes, but the eMac 17-inch was a CRT. So it was actually equivalent to a 15-inch LCD.
    The new edu Mac has a larger screen.

    Agreed on a technical basis, but Apple would also have to design a new case for a 15-incher, and I wonder if that would be worth the expense.


  3. Lee Conley says:

    For gods sake don’t get rid of the iSight and Photo Booth. Can you imagine how much fun the kids could have with with these? Ceative fun is what kids need and computers should deliver.

  4. jj says:

    $899 (plus applecare) is way too much for an educational computer. schools need cheap and reliable, not trendy design. also, LCD screens are prone to curious fingers and pencils in a school environment, particularly at the K-8 level. the mini is okay for schools who can recycle old monitors and keyboards, but until apple comes back with an all-inclusive (monitor, keyboard, etc) sub-$700 Mac they’re not going to make any headway in schools.

  5. Dave T says:

    Minis and imacs are all well and good, but what I really want to see is a mini-tower, scrunched small enough yet still maintaining user serviceability insofar as memory, hard disks (at least two) and real, non-integrated graphics cards are concerned. Oh, yes: FW800, please! My PM is only one year old (and works great)–yet I could be convinced to replace it well before its time with a more economical non-beast. Come on, Apple. I know you can do it!!

  6. Wei says:

    Total cost of ownership needs to be reevaluated. This term used to have significant meaning. However things change. Hardware and software systems today are far more stable and more easier to use than before. The need for support has greatly declined as people are more technically savvy and have gotten of the horrid systems such as Win95/Win98/WinME.

    Remember 15+ years ago, you needed a geek to do word processing for you? or to tweak your autoexec.bat or config.sys files?. Today, nearly every body has a computer and word processing skills and don’t have to deal with a lot of dumb configuration files of the past. The same thing applies with support. You only need it on rare occasions because a large percent of the population can fix things themselves by going to a manufacturer’s support website or using google. This lessens the cost of PC ownership.

    Furthermore, in terms of downtime, things like viruses have less of an effect today. We’ve learned our lesson from the big ones such as “Code Red”. Security clamp downs have greatly reduced the chance of this kind of downtime from happening again. So, I’m not convinced that a Mac has a huge advantage in this area. If it were so, most of the world would have switched to a Mac long ago. They have not and proves the “switchers” campaign failed. Again, I see no significant advantage in cost of ownership.

    I have a Mac and a PC and use them professionally for over 15 years. You need to sell the Mac on the experience (not the price).

  7. Ricky says:

    I’m a game developer and all my friends code with c# and .NET, asp.NET. We make a lot of money in the windows world and our kids know it. They laugh at the Mac’s lack of game performance. They also lookup tech jobs and find so little in the Mac software development environment. Given this, they have zero desire to use a Mac at school. Wheres the money in it? They still think a Mac is cool and fun to use (as do I) but would not stake their future career on it. They know that the total cost of owning a Mac is likely to be very expensive because it would mean forfeiting the high income they could have got from using a PC for .NET software development.

  8. Lucias says:

    I’m an educator. It’s nice to have a cheaper iMac option. However, our students often find that surfing on a Mac has so much headaches. There are so many websites that just don’t work right on a Mac yet they work fine on the cheap PC right next to it. Along with many other things, the online experience was much better with a PC so we and the whole disctrict stuck with PCs. Our developer students at the college also complain that it’s such a pain to code for two environments. It’s easier to stick with the environment with most market share (PC).

    I agree with one of the previous posts about total cost of ownership. It was pure hell get our systems up and running after getting hit with Code Red. That cost us dearly and we did learn our lesson. After switching to XP and using automatic updates, we were never hit again.

    There is a great misconception that cheap PCs require lot’s of upgrades that will drive up the cost and will crash all the time because of cheap parts. We find this is simply not true (not anymore).

  9. steve says:

    I’m trying to sort through the contradictory things in these posts. On the one hand, people are saying that the Mac no longer has as great a TCO advantage, and on the other, they are saying that for the job market, there’s still lots of employment opportunites for tech folk doing care and feeding for Windows.

    Also, I’m curious about the .Net stuff. I watched the Microsoft ads about that, and it seemed like something for ordering one lightbulb at a time rather than getting them by the carton. Well, that’s what the ad said. I imagine there is something else involved, but they didn’t mention it. And isn’t C# just a Java ripoff? Is it perhaps this software that produces the crappy web sites that don’t work well with Macs? I’ve encountered some of them, and I just don’t bother to go back. I figure that if they don’t won’t my business, I won’t force it on them. Plus, I wonder if they can’t do a simple web site, should I really expect much out of whatever they are trying (though not too hard) to sell me? Doing a workable, standards-compliant website is not rocket science.

    Also, what does asp do that you can’t do with your basic PHP and MySQL on a Linix server?

    These are not rhetorical questions. I’m curious as to what I’m missing in life.

  10. Andrew says:

    I think the edu-iMac is a great idea and was overdue. I hope that like the eMac, Apple offers them for sale to regular consumers. I would prefer this as an office machine to a regular iMac as the ATI graphics, larger hard drive, DVD burner and remote control offer absolutely no advantage in a corporate settings, at least not at my law office.

    We do word processing, using a web-based case management application, and lots of email. Occasionally we even create PowerPoint presentations and video chat using iChat AV or Yahoo Messenger. On days-off from school, my daughter comes in and plays web-based games and watches DVDs. These are all functions that the education iMac can do every bit as well as the full consumer version. Given the opportunity to buy one of these at under $1000, I’d swap it with the office manager’s 20″ G5 and bring that one home.

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