A Maine School District Struggles with Apple’s Notebook Pricing

3 minute read
| Analysis

Recently we got an email from Peter K. E. Robinson, Technology Director, Auburn School Department in Auburn Maine. He had been listening with interest to our TMO Daily Observations Podcast and the associated, written articles. One of my written articles, discussed on TDO, was: “A Bold Move for Apple: MacBook Air 2 for Education.

Apple Education

School districts can’t live on iPads alone. Image Credit: Apple

In that article, I presented the case that the iPad shouldn’t be the only product in Apple’s portfolio of educational computers. A newly designed, lower cost, MacBook Air 2 would help Apple go toe-to-toe against the onslaught of Chromebooks.

The email from Mr. Robinson filled in and substantiated the practical details. I’ll quote him, with his permission, as I go along. The first issue, as I’ve written myself, is that iPads, while less expensive than a MacBook AIr, don’t always fill the pedagogical bill.

We did attempt iPads at middle and high school when they were offered as an option on the statewide program. That was less than successful. The perception from both teachers and students was that they were essentially toys, not fit for real work. And, as I believe you’ve observed on the podcast a time or two, perceptions have real consequences, whether they are in fact real or not. We never made it past that, and consequently the iPads were not well used. We also had a great deal of damage. So last year we switched back to MacBook Air 11-inch laptops.

The next issue, when a school considers what kind of notebook can meet their needs is cost. That’s true whether the school pays or the student is on a BYOD program. When it was PC vs. Mac notebook, the case could be made for a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) of a Mac.

However, I now find myself in the weird situation of being somewhat of a holdout with Apple as I watch a bunch of my colleagues in other districts moving to Chromebooks. In the past I’ve always been able to make the case successfully that Apple products had a lower total cost of ownership, because they were more durable … and would remain functional for longer.

There comes a tipping point, however, when a pedagogical capability is married with an exceptionally low price point. It’s that magic combination that Apple hasn’t been able to duplicate. Then the TCO argument fails.

My colleagues (who used to be right there with me on that argument) are telling me that this [TCO argument] is no longer as true. In terms of capability, Chromebooks now have apps like Explain Everything, as well as movie and audio creation tools that have been staples in our classroom use of Macs. [Not to mention free Google Docs -ed.] And at somewhere just above $200 each, compared to $800 or so for a MacBook Air 11-inch, the TCO case is a hard one to make.

Public schools are poor. If we can get 80% of the capability for 25% of the cost, we’re going to struggle to make the case to our communities that we should go for the 100% option at 4 times the cost.

Given that some schools would still accept a slightly higher price to justify the TCO, quality and capability, Mr. Robinson goes on to describe the (cost) line in the sand.

I hope Apple sees this. They’ve certainly heard it from me. They really need to come up with a sub $500 laptop for the education market.

… I would hate to move away from Apple. But I’m going to have a losing battle on my hands to stay with them if there isn’t a cost competitive option the next time we are looking at refreshing our fleet of devices in middle and high school.

Mr. Robinson wrote that he has a strong relationship with Apple through his education rep. Apple is aware of his concerns. He pointed out to me that he’s comfortable sharing these thoughts so long as the context is clear. And that’s the central issue:

[My] central the point [is] that if my district moves away from Apple it will not be by choice based on capability, but because Apple has failed to recognize the reality for cash strapped school districts.

Taking up the Challenge

The notion of appealing to the Apple sales rep, who agrees fully with a customer need but having it fall on deaf ears at corporate is not a new thing at Apple. It’s been an ongoing problem for decades. It all boils down to corporate consciousness and commitment.

2017 MacBook Air

It’s not beyond Apple’s industrial capacity to smartly redesign the MacBook Air to meet education needs.

I wrote in my own article, linked above:

Competing hardware in terms of PCs and Chromebooks suggest that Apple could meet that cutoff price if engineering changes were made.

That is, the price of components used in competing Chromebooks and low-cost PC notebooks could likely be met with a similar set of hardware that runs macOS. Some smart engineering would be required, and perhaps the visionary MacBook Air 2 wouldn’t have the exotic innards, display and svelte case of current MacBook Airs. That’s okay.

Apple’s SVP Phil Schiller has said that education is deep in Apple’s DNA. Hopefully, before long, it’ll also be in Apple’s business plan.

3 Comments Add a comment

  1. iGrouch

    I find it hard to believe that Apple will change the current trend of becoming more premium if such a term is correct. This trend has been evident for the last seven years and has been exacerbated by the release of products with no upgrade options after purchase.

    Take the replacement to the wired extended Keyboard. What was an affordable option at €54 now costs c€150 for a wireless model which some of us don’t need or want. It exemplifies what Apple now stands for: upper middle class computing and is a policy that is spear headed by the likes of Angela Arhendts.

    Some of us are driven down the hackintosh route if we don’t want to change to one of the other platforms.

    Trust me though, the layer of complexity of dealing with boot-loaders is not for the faint hearted and the build quality is never going to match that of Apple when it made serious computer hardware for the professional who needed expandability delivered in a practical box.

    We will need to see what happens next year but if prices remain so high, I can’t see much hope for a lot of people buying into the Apple dream. In the past I would have converted many away from Windows to Apple. These days if some asks I just say if they are happy on Windows just stick with it.

  2. mvallance

    This article could be from 2007 or 1997. For decades Apple has assumed the education sector would recommend and purchase expensive Apple hardware. I have been in Education for 25 years and seen so many wonderful innovations using Apple: eMates, iMacs, MacBooks, and MacBook Air. .. even Xserve. Applications such as Apple Remote Desktop, OS X Server, and a classroom app for administrators (don’t recall its name) have helped manage the technologies. The Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE) program and ACOT supported teachers.
    Education is in Apple’s DNA – says Phil.
    Yet Apple continues to increase its prices.
    There needs to be an Education pricing for a MacBook specifically aimed at students to compete with the Chromebooks and PCs.
    Will they? I doubt it, yet the MacBook Air appears to be the most popular notebook in my university and is reasonably priced.
    C’mon Apple … keep education in your DNA.

  3. Old UNIX Guy

    I agree that Apple needs to come up with a low-cost laptop to compete with Chromebooks. Even if they have to sell them at cost in order to get the price competitive, that is a small price to pay for not losing tens (hundreds?) of thousands of future customers by them getting their start with Google and Chromebooks instead of Apple products.

    I think the problem right now is that Apple thinks they already do have a sub-$500 solution that can compete with Chromebooks … that being the $329 ($309 education pricing) iPad. I know that – as this article points out – iPads are not an adequate replacement for laptops and aren’t meeting the needs of many schools … but hey, that’s just the opinion of the people who are actually using the devices … and what do they know? They’ve obviously forgotten that Apple knows better than them what they need and what they need are iPads.

    Right, Tim Cook?

    Oh, and Tim – while I’ve got your attention … let me throw down a challenge for you … take the 2015 MacBook Pro design, upgrade only the processors (to Kaby Lake) and put them up for sale alongside your “form over function” 2016/2017 models … and let *US* decide which we prefer! That would be … courageous … but my money says Apple doesn’t have that much courage.

    Old UNIX Guy

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