By Charles Haddad
"Macs? Dude, they suck."
Thus spat a teenage friend of my son. The Mac had earned this boy's condemnation through one unforgivable weakness. Few hot new games are released for Macs at the same time as for PCs. Most of the popular ones take a year or more to come to the Mac. That's simply insufferable to this boy.
I'd like to dismiss this snotty teen out of hand, but I dare not. For I know his comment speaks to why Apple struggles today to keep schools loyal to the Mac. In the classroom, Apple's greatest foe isn't Dell or any other PC maker. It's kids. They expect -- no, demand -- to learn on the same computer they've played games on since toddlerhood. And that computer is a PC.
It would be nice if we could just blame this sorry state of affairs on the Wintel duopoly of Microsoft Windows and Intel chips. But I'm afraid Apple must share some of the blame. And I'm not talking about Steve Jobs's infamous bungled reorganization of the company's education unit last year. What I'm referring to is a strategic mistake committed more than a decade ago.
Children weren't always so dismissive of the Mac. Apple was among the first to recognize that personal computers could transform how kids learn and that schools represented a potentially huge market. It was a market Apple had conquered by the early 1990s. Back then, schools were where most kids first learned about personal computers. And their first experience was most often on either the original Apple or a Mac.
Then, flushed with their success in schools, Apple executives made a big mistake. They let themselves get spooked by a longtime taunt: That the Mac was a toy, not a real computer. No serious user would be caught dead with a computer that bonged and then smiled at you when it started up -- or so it was said. The taunt came as Apple decided it wanted to enter the corporate market, just like rival Microsoft. So, Apple followed the leader rather than lead its followers. It began to stamp out boxy beige machines that looked just like PCs.
Worse yet, Apple shunned a rising vanguard of young developers. I'm talking, of course, about the gamers. The Mac offered them everything they needed to make their games a success: A built-in ability to play sound and animation, stunning graphics, and ease of use.
While gamers loved the Mac, Apple executives didn't love them. The brass feared games would forever tar the Mac as a toy and no corporate-purchasing executive would buy one. Maybe so, but in shunning gamers, Apple missed out on one the biggest computing trends of the 1990s because games helped drive PC penetration of the home market.
By the time they entered kindergarten, most kids in the late 1990s were veteran users of computers. And the machines they had been trained on were PCs, the platform for which most games are written. Not surprisingly, kids expect to find PCs when they reach school. And, increasingly, that's what they're demanding to find.
It's a demand schools -- even those long wired with Macs -- find hard to resist. In today's schools, teachers and administrators are no longer in control. It's parents and their children who set the agenda, especially in the well-off suburban districts that buy the most computers. Every week, I read or hear of a new school dumping Macs at the demand of angry parents who want their children to learn on PCs "like everyone else."
SEEKING KID GLUE.
All is not lost - if Apple recognizes that the battle for the classroom begins in the playroom. Armed with OS X, the greatest operating system ever designed for gaming, Apple must make a real effort to win over the game developers. I'm not talking about just ensuring that most PC games are eventually rewritten for the Mac. Apple must inspire some developers to release some hot new games either just for the Mac or simultaneously on both platforms. It's not impossible. The Miller brothers did just that with their blockbusters, Myst and Riven.
I have a dream. Someday, a game on the Mac will hook kids like a sticky lollypop. Then, they'll return from the first day of school and complain that there were no Macs in their classroom. And a group of angry parents will browbeat a school into dumping PCs for Macs.
Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a longtime Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online
Edited by Thane Peterson