A Laptop at Every Desk

As more school districts seek to equip each student with a computer, Apple, Dell, and other makers vie for the lucrative contracts

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Last year, officials at Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia set out to provide a laptop computer for every student in the county's nine high schools. The district got an enthusiastic response to its request for bids, with proposals from Apple Computer and Dell the most alluring, a district spokesman says.

But Dell (DELL) edged out its smaller rival with a lower price and by addressing concerns over service and hardware backup, says district spokesman Michael Dickerson. "It was competitive," he says. "We wanted to be responsible with the taxpayer's dollar, but we wanted to make sure that we were getting quality technology."

The sting was short-lived for Apple (AAPL). Earlier this year, Apple won a four-year contract to provide laptops for the county's middle schools. So goes the tug of war amid big computer makers for share of the market for outfitting schools and colleges with the latest in high-tech gear. Globally, it's a business that generates more than $15 billion a year, according to researcher IDC.


  The competition is especially heated in the U.S., where a growing number of districts are adopting so-called one-to-one learning initiatives aimed at equipping every student with an in-class computer, be it a laptop, tablet PC, or a comparable device. The more computers per student, the better pupils' attendance, enthusiasm, and test scores, administrators and teachers say.

One-to-one school programs gained currency some 15 years ago in Australia, where a handful of schools purchased enough PCs to match enrollment. The idea gained traction in the U.S. by 1996, when schools such as Cincinnati Country Day in Ohio supplied each student with a laptop. Henrico County began its program in 2001. Around the same time, the first statewide one-to-one learning initiative got under way in Maine, after Apple won the contract to provide iBooks to every middle school student in the state. The idea has taken on a global dimension through One Laptop per Child, a nonprofit started by Nicholas Negroponte of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which wants to get computers into the hands of kids around the world (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/20/05, "Quanta's $100 Laptop Challenge").

Wherever they're attempted, such programs face high hurdles, affordability being one of the tallest. Also, many teachers and parents question the appropriateness of implementing technology on such a wide scale. For one, students sitting in front of a computer screen all day are presented with more tools of distraction, such as electronic games, music, and social networking. In addition, some say the initiatives force computers into classrooms where teachers don't have a good grasp on how to integrate them into their lesson planning.


  None of that's stopping computer makers like Apple, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) from pursuing the market, particularly in the U.S. (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/3/04, "Apple's Back-to-School Blast"). According to Market Data Retrieval, there are an estimated 12.9 million computers spread throughout classrooms serving 49.5 million students in U.S. public schools. That suggests there's fewer than one computer for every four students and that more than 30 million additional computers could be sold in coming years if one-to-one programs gain universal adoption.

That's a big if, of course. And any company hoping to benefit from rising school demand needs to address at least two big questions: How much functionality does each student really need, and what is the most cost-efficient way to provide it?

Apple has made an aggressive play for the market. The Maine Learning Technology Initiative was designed to furnish every seventh- and eighth-grade student in the state with an iBook. "The response Apple had to our bid indicated a clear understanding of our educational goals and our needs," says Jeff Mao, Maine's coordinator of educational technology.


  State officials say the program has helped them reach many goals, noting improvements in attendance, test performance, and GPAs. The success in Maine helped Apple secure district bids in Virginia, California, Indiana, and other states, according to school press releases that cited the effectiveness of the statewide initiative. In June, Apple renewed its contract with Maine, a four-year, $41 million deal that provides 32,000 students and 4,000 teachers with new iBooks.

For its part, Dell is experimenting with a program it calls Intelligent Classrooms, which puts together a package of technologies including wireless Internet access, personal response systems, and electronic whiteboards—all built around a particular subject, such as math, science, or English. The public school district in Round Rock, Tex., where Dell is based, has installed 16 intelligent classrooms in four schools. "In our long-range plan, we didn't think one configuration fit classrooms [of all] curriculum areas and age levels," says Ed Zaiontz, executive director for information services for the Round Rock Independent School District. "The advantage is we can target teachers that are ready to put these computers to use."

Eight of the first 16 $40,000 classrooms in Round Rock were funded by Dell, and the computer maker plans to encourage the program's expansion. If the idea passes a bond election this November, the district will double the number of classrooms each consecutive year. Dell has pledged to fund every third classroom in this proposal.


  While complete computer devices like laptops show success, their huge expense and sometimes distracting extras may be incompatible with the goals of some schools. That's opened opportunities for smaller companies offering mid-range solutions.

Aiming to close the gap between smaller handheld devices with limited features and costly laptops and tablet PCs, Israel-based Fourier in June introduced the comprehensive and adaptable Nova5000, a touch-screen device equipped with Windows CE, built-in Wi-Fi, and basic computing applications. Science and math students can plug in about 60 different sensors that take measurements like acceleration, heart rate, pH, and temperature—around the lab or out in the field. "Why is it that only one state has done a statewide laptop initiative?" asks Thomas Fitzgerald, Fourier's CEO of U.S. operations, referring to Maine. "Everything ties back to sources of funding. The cost of rolling out and sustaining a multiple-year laptop deployment is very high when you [account for] batteries, maintenance, support, and other ongoing costs."

The $600 Nova5000 is being used at the school and district level in about 20 states. If Fitzgerald has his way, the number won't stop there.

For another look at computers in classrooms, click here for the slide show.

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