The iMac is the centre of attention in Apple's resurgence. However, behind the scenes, Steve Jobs has encouraged his software engineers to focus on speed and stability without sacrificing ease of use. At last, Mac networking has been given the attention it deserves.
Students have previously preferred to browse on PCs rather than Macs because they were faster. Not any more. The iMac, with the new Mac operating system (MacOS 8.5), has brought Macs storming back because it is quick and has a crisp screen display.
Apple's reputation for providing sluggish, proprietary networking (LocalTalk) has been swept away in favour of fully-supported industry protocols (TCPIP) and built-in Ethernet networking as standard. Most PCs still don't have Ethernet.
If you have two or more Macs in one room - or even in adjoining rooms - then there is no reason why they should not be networked.
The advantages of sharing central resources such as worksheets, CD-Roms, printers or even web-pages over a small intranet outweigh the minimal extra cost of a network hub and some cable (about pound;100 for eight machines - the software is included free with every Mac).
At this basic level, a dedicated file server is not necessary, so one machine can be set up as a file server or web server or both. Do not despair: the set-up is simple - easier than setting up a modem for the Internet.
With Vicom Internet Gateway software you can also share a modem between your networked machines for email or even Web access (pound;155 for five users, pound;269 for 10, pound;450 unlimited - check for online delivery prices).
The Vicom software includes a filter (firewall) to block inappropriate sites automatically. Securing each machine from inquisitive users can be accomplished with At Ease (free from Apple) or MacPrefect (pound;36 for one copy, or pound;224 for a 10-pack from Hi-Resolution. MacAdministrator, the network version, is pound;390 for a 10-pack).
The beauty of Apple networking is that it is easy to build on without losing your investment in experience or money.
As more machines are added, it soon becomes necessary to add a dedicated file server. Apple has a range of Workgroup Servers which come with the recently released AppleShare IP 6.1 software (free as part of the server bundle). This achieves similar performance levels to Windows NT 4 for both Mac and PC clients, and supports 10,000 users with 500 connected at any one time.
If you didn't tell them, PC users wouldn't even notice that they were accessing a Mac server, and it includes an email server (with IM support) as well.
For network management, Apple Network Assistant, which comes free with AppleShare, can profile and configure any or all of the Macs on a network remotely. Not only can you update software, but also view and control the screens of other machines on the network for online help, or the teacher can show his screen to his students.
Apple is beginning to achieve that elusive harmony between its hardware and software offerings for education and, at last, there is a strong feeling that we ain't seen nothing yet!