The bosses of Apple Computer are keeping an eye on large-scale programmes to connect UK schools to the National Grid for Learning because they feel the prejudices of IT professionals are unfairly excluding Apple products.
Despite being one of only 12 computer services companies approved by the British Educational and Communications Agency to supply UK schools with managed services, Apple faces exclusion in some of the large connection schemes where administrators opt for one computer platform - mostly Windows PCs.
Speaking at the launch of Apple's iBook notebook computer, designed in collaboration with American universities, the company's senior vice-president of worldwide sales, Mitch Mandich, said the company had invested in its UK education arm Xemplar, to link with schools. "We have an additional challenge," he said, "with the large government contracts being really biased by some of the IT professionals that have a Wintel orientation. That puts added pressure on Apple to sell our solutions more effectively. When we get the opportunity to do that with schools directly and get to talk to end-users, Apple's propensity to win goes up substantially.
"The job is to be sure we have a combined strategy that goes into the schools directly so they understand the value of AppleI We have to go to the large government bids and get in front of them before the bids are locked in for a Wintel solution. That is not going to be easy."
Bad feeling broke out in the summer over the plan to refurbish Glasgow's schools, a major deal that includes installing new computer networks. The spat centred on claims that the Glasgow administration had made it clear privately that the result of the confidential bids would be one computer platform. ie Windows PCs. A council spokesman denied this, but contractors are under the impression that Apple is out.
The bidding process in Glasgow was a reason behind the resignation of the area's long-time ICT adviser, Roddy Stuart. He believed the process was neither open nor fair and that one of the expounded benefits of PFI, the wealth of outside expertise, had proved a fallacy due to confidentiality clauses.
"At a time when teachers feel under pressure from Higher Still course introduction, and many other worthy changes, it is unfortunate a 'ready-made' solution is going to be imposed on them rather than one which builds on the hard work which has already been committed to by very many Glasgow teachers."
Northern Ireland, an area with a strong Apple presence in schools, is conducting the ambitious Classroom 2000 project to network its schools. It is the biggest UK scheme so far, worth pound;250 million over 10 years. Only one consortium is left in the bidding (against local government costings) and that includes RM and ICL, both companies which are PC-based. Although RM now sees itself as a computer services, rather than PC, supplier, outside observers find it difficult to envisage RM handing out Apple Macs on demand. Tom McMullen, who is managing the project, says that whoever gets the contract will be expected to support "legacy" machines (the quaint term for existing machines that don't fit in with future procurement), but he pledged that hardware should not be the issue and that if schools had good educational arguments for a particular product they should be able to get it.
Three Bradford primaries felt so strongly about the way they were being pushed into Windows that they posted their feelings on their website:
"Bradford LEA said that in order for schools to comply with their NGFL plans they should run systems using Windows '95 or higher. So we chose something higher; we chose Apple." They felt they were misinformed about Windows by the local authority and insisted on sticking to Apple. They also felt that they had better value for their learning grid funds. "We had to fight all the way along the line to stay a Mac school," says Jonathan Price, headteacher at Eastwood first school, Keighley.
Local advisers denied coercing schools into Windows. They said that schools were given a choice, but conceded that when the local network was set up a decision was taken to make it PC-based.
The chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET), Richard Pietrasik, was the first person in the UK to see Apple's new iBook computer. SCET wants it for its forthcoming MacPC laptop scheme for Scottish teachers.
Richard Pietrasik doesn't understand why schools can't make their own choices. He ran West Lothian's Creatis network for two years. It was set up to support both PCs and Macs. "A mixed platform is not a problem these days," he says. "It's just not an issue."
John Thornley, ICT adviser for the Isle of Man, holds similar views. His next laptop scheme for teachers will feature iBooks and PCs (Compaq Armadas) for secondaries, and iBooks for primaries.
The island has all its schools and colleges connected to a high-speed network with four access points in every teaching room. He is looking forward to taking delivery of his first iBooks for a pilot scheme so that instant networks can be set up in any classroom on the island.
Ian Carter, head of IT at Cheltenham College, runs a network of 250 Macs and 50 PCs: "Now Apple has been given the stamp of approval by BECTA as an supplier, there is a great opportunity for the ostriches to pull their heads out of the sand and start considering education as a priority rather than business."
* Apple's iBook is more than just a portable version of its iMac computer. Available in two colours, blueberry and tangerine, there are many new features on the laptop, the most innovative being the optional AirPort wireless networking (above) that allows Internet access without being tied to a socket. Two built-in antennae give a range of 45 metres from the base station. Other features include a 300 MHz PowerPC G3 processor, 24x CD-Rom, 32MB RAM, 3.2GB hard drive, 56k modem and a six-hour battery life. Yet it is the simple but clever touches that catch the eye, such as a handle that makes a case unnecessary. The iBook is priced from pound;1,249.