The Mac is back in a big way, pushing for a bigger share of school sales after Acorn's demise. George Cole reports.
And then there were two. The news that Acorn has pulled out of the desktop computer market and sold its stake in Xemplar, the educational IT company set up with Apple in 1996, means there are now only two leading computer systems for schools to choose from: Apple or PC.
Acorn's decision to sever the relationship with Apple was not entirely unexpected given the announcement late last year that the company would no longer develop its Risc PC computers. That said, the news has sent shockwaves through education. Schools using Apple or Acorn are unsure about their future.
Two things are certain: Acorn machines and software will not disappear from our schools overnight and the new-look Xemplar will make its mark and evangelise for Apple, something that has never been done effectively for British schools.
"It's business as usual," says Nick Evans, Xemplar's head of marketing, "and it's exciting news for Apple users because it means we can now focus on Apple, and we'll get access to even more new technology."
Apple and Acorn still account for a large part of IT in schools. A survey last year, found that there were 126,000 Acorn machines and 22,000 Apple computers in primary schools; in secondaries the figures were 98,000 and 45,000 respectively. So Apple and Acorn account for 47 per cent of computers in primary schools and a third of those in secondary - a very large proportion.
The figures disguise the fact that Apple is the leading computer platform in large parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as in some English authorities. Edinburgh and Oldham have placed large orders for Apple's innovative and award-winning iMac.
What is more, Xemplar has been a successful joint venture. In three years, it has gained more than 20,000 schools customers and in 1997 made a profit of pound;0.2 million (the 1998 figures are expected to reveal much bigger profits).
Acorn has decided to cut all ties with the past: it has changed its name to Element 14 (silicon, the basic material of microchips) and is focusing on digital televisions. Castle Technology, formerly Acorn's largest dealer, is selling Risc PCs.
What this means for Acorn users is unclear. Just after the news broke, Nick Evans indicated that Xemplar was committed to assisting Acorn customers in the transition between platforms.
Xemplar still sells PCs and network computers made by Acorn. Nick Evans says Xemplar will continue to support its PC customers, but was unable to talk about the long term. However, outside observers find it hard to imagine Apple allowing Xemplar to sell its competitors' products (they would still be available via third parties).
It is likely that Xemplar will continue to push network computers (thousands have been sold into schools), especially as the Apple boss, Steve Jobs, recently demonstrated 50 disk-less iMacs running video pulled from an Apple server.
So where does this leave Xemplar? It would be a grave mistake for Apple to simply integrate its educational activities into its day-to-day operations - Apple UK was never particularly effective for British schools. Its best course is to keep Xemplar as an autonomous division and focus on education.
Apple has a strong and loyal customer base which appreciates the combination of sophisticated technology and ease of use. Leading software packages such as Microsoft Office are available for Apple machines. New technology like the stunning iMac and super-fast G3 machines have turned a lot of heads, leap-frogged PCs in their capabilities and, more importantly, resulted in massive sales.
Developments such as the National Grid for Learning and the forthcoming teacher training initiatives are enormous opportunities for Xemplar. As Nick Evans puts it: "If you are a small school, it can be expensive to pay a licence for a small PC network with just a handful of computers. The 'Microsoft tax' on networking adds to the cost."
It will be tempting for schools to jump aboard the PC bandwagon because that seems to be the safest route to take. But it is worth remembering that people used to say: "No one got fired for buying IBM." Some people are under the illusion that all they have to do is substitute IBM with Windows. But in the age of the Internet and open standards, the PC is not an inevitable purchase.
The strategy for those Apple schools and those still attached to Acorn should be: "Don't panic. Thaink carefully about your next move and don't rule out any possibility." As Nick Evans puts it: "Talk to us, we have a lot to offer."
From fast to whoosh, page 28 Xemplar Education 01223 724200 www.xemplar.co.uk Apple Computer www.apple.com Castle Technology 01728 621222 www.castle-technology.co.uk