What would be on your wish list for an educational computer? How about a teacher-friendly operating system, built-in support for sound, thousands of colours, video and networking? Then you'd surely want plug-and-play capability for all those awkward peripherals such as printers, modems and CD-Rom drives, plus support for special needs with speech synthesis and keyboard help. And it must have a life expectancy of at least five years under hostile conditions. Round this off with built-in software and a price tag of about Pounds 1, 000 or less.
Probably one of the best-kept secrets is that this machine has been available for about a year as an Apple Macintosh Performa 630. And it will be no surprise to hear that this is soon to be replaced by a faster, more expensive Power PC as Apple's cheapest school machine.
So why not drop the price a few points and sell Performa 630s to education by the bucket-load? Most schools will happily forego the latest technology if they can provide more machines of this calibre for children to work on. This is Apple's dilemma: an innovative company stretching the art of the possible, trying to maintain its advantage against the wolves (Intel and Windows 95) threatening to swallow it up.
Many observers believe Apple's survival depends on the success of its next operating system, called Copland or System 8, which will require the extra speed of the new Power PC machines. However, Copland may not appear before the end of this year.
This may as well be happening on a different planet as far as education is concerned - schools want practical learning solutions for the curriculum, with readily available support if something goes wrong.
Phil Hemmings, Apple UK's education marketing manager, comes from the education specialists, Research Machines. He recognises that Apple must build more educational value and better support into its products. But Marco Landi, president of Apple Europe, says the company must be "more focused, more aggressive and more solutions-oriented".
This is a tall order if education is to become one of the core business objectives - Apple UK's education team has only five members compared with more than 250 support staff at Research Machines.
Even with a skeleton staff, however, Hemmings has set several initiatives in motion. In May last year, the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET) successfully managed the distribution of 1,500 Macs to teachers in six weeks by offering interest-free credit on a Performa 630 with a 15-inch monitor, bundled software and support from SCET. Most teachers wouldn't be surprised by the positive response to this scheme, but Apple was. The scheme has now been opened to the rest of the UK - with a parent purchase scheme in which participating schools can claim a free Mac for every 12 parents who buy a Mac for home.
But the days are numbered for the Performa 630, and the PowerBook 150 has already disappeared from the price list. Hemmings says the company is looking at ways of producing inexpensive products specifically for education. Licensing Macintosh technology to other manufacturers could increase competition at the bottom end of the market, but none is available yet in the UK. We will have to wait for the Performa 6200 to drop in price or re-mortgage the house for a PowerBook 190.
With the help of companies like TAG, a wide range of education solutions are now available on the Mac. Apple is actively encouraging Acorn developers to create versions of their products for the Mac; Anglia Multimedia now produces triple-platform CD-Rom titles for Acorn, Mac and PC. The effort and costs involved with cross-platform development have dissuaded many software developers from supporting the Mac, but increasingly major publishers such as Oxford University Press and Penguin have Mac and Multimedia PC titles in their catalogues.
Multimedia development tools such as HyperStudio and KliK Play should promote the proliferation of titles from both professional and budding, young developers. Meanwhile, the 630 DOS-compatible Mac with its 486DX2 processor is an elegant solution for those who need to run MPC or DOS CD-Roms and applications. Not surprisingly Apple is striking up an alliance with Research Machines and its internet for Learning service will be providing cross-platform internet access at BETT.
Apple has strong appeal for Internet use; its World Wide Web servers take the mystery out of setting up a Web site and Adobe PageMill software makes the construction of Web pages a snip. Also, HyperStudio contains a host of features which allow effortless interaction with Internet sites for grabbing text or pictures for inclusion in multimedia projects.
High Resolution has released MacAdministrator 1.1, a complex but vital piece of software for managing student access to Macs on a network. At last, FileMaker Pro from Claris leaps from a flat-file database to relational with version 3, something which will be greatly appreciated by those constructing school administration systems.
On the Apple stand, its "Bring Learning to Life" area will allow teachers to test drive a Mac under the guidance of experienced teachers. Each session will cover a different curriculum area and employ skills such as using networks, the Internet and support for special needs.
It's been a difficult year for Apple with weekly rumours of takeovers, backlogs for popular machines and auto-combusting PowerBooks. But the company produces machines and software which will continue to encourage innovative uses of IT. Let us hope the new education team will get the support needed to play a greater role in British schools.