Macs: Crashing on campus?

Jodi Compton

Many college students grew up with user-friendly Apple computers, and roughly half of the desktop computers on campus are estimated to be Apples. But all that might change in light of financial troubles at Apple Computers Inc. and the rising popularity of PCs.
Apple Computers Inc. began layoffs in late March. It announced that these would eventually amount to about 30 percent of its labor force, including Apple’s sales representative at the University.
Zoe Arden, a spokeswoman for Apple, said that Apple is not losing sales representation at schools such as the University, but instead will have independent agents handling Apple accounts.
She also stressed that Apple is taking steps to protect the computer’s place on campuses. “As a result of the restructuring, education is even more important to Apple now,” Arden said.
Apple has long dominated the education market, said James Staten, an industry analyst for Dataquest, a San Jose, Calif., research group. “From the very beginning Apple has focused on the education market, giving deep discounts on their machines and also making machines just for them,” Staten said.
But Apple has been increasingly under attack by PCs: IBM computers or IBM “clones.” These computers are capable of running similar operating systems, particularly Microsoft’s popular Windows software, and are seen by many as faster and cheaper than their Apple counterparts.
Nationally, Apple computer’s share of the market dropped by 31 percent in 1996, while leading rival Compaq’s sales grew by 23 percent. Dell Computer Corporation, whose market share increased by 71 percent last year, edged out Apple for fourth place in sales. Compaq and Dell are both IBM clones.
Apple still dominates the education market, with a 41 percent market share, in comparison to its 6.7 percent share of the overall U.S. market. But that might be changing; the education figure represents a 3.9 percent drop from 1995 figures. Dell’s growth in the education field mirrors its national growth, and is up by 72 percent.
Dell is Apple’s closest rival in campus sales. The company started a higher education program last year, offering discounts to buyers through the University’s bookstore, said Jeff Svedahl. Svedahl manages the University’s computer store, which sells not only to individual students but to University departments as well.
Dell’s tactic of giving discounts is “basically what Apple’s been doing all along, but now PCs are starting to jump on the bandwagon,” Svedahl said.
But although Apple sales at Williamson dropped by 58 percent in 1996, the Macintosh, Apple’s 1984 breakthrough product, remains the top seller. Svedahl said the “Mac” still represents to many users what once made Apple great — user-friendliness.
“Everyone can use a computer now because of the Mac,” said Svedahl. The novelty of the Macintosh was its graphical user interface — a “desktop” with visual icons that allowed users to employ a mouse instead of typed commands to get things done.
“A lot of the techie people considered it a toy,” said Svedahl. “You didn’t have to know anything to use it.”
Jamil Jabr, administrative director of public computing facilities, concurs. In many ways, he said, the Mac was “the People’s machine.”
The Mac’s ease of use, along with education discounts, propelled it to success in the education market. This may have been a strategic move, intending to hook young users.
“You’ve got an almost religious following of users,” said Svedahl. Many of those buying new computers at Williamson, he said, “have had Macs in high school.”
Jabr also sees strategy in Apple’s domination of the education market. “The bottom line in pitching education so hard … is that people will bring the environment they’re used to using, the Mac, into the working world.”
In a few areas this has succeeded, Jabr says, citing design as one University department in which Macs are primarily used.
But this strategy does not appear to have been successful. Instead, it may be that PCs have won over the business world with schools following suit.
“There’s been a big move in higher education to go to Windows, because of compatibility with what’s being used outside the schools, meaning in the workplace,” said Staten.
But students are increasingly computer literate at an early age and there may be less need for beginner-friendly computers in higher education. Staten notes that Apple is hanging on to its K-12 market better than its college market. “There’s not as much need to prepare 8th-graders and 7th-graders for the working world.”
What went wrong for Apple? Some say that PCs have caught up, co-opting Apple’s main selling point of simplicity. “Windows 95 is a copy of the Macintosh,” said Svedahl.
Shih-Pau Yen, director of academic and distributed computing services, agrees. “(PCs) have cut down the distance between Macintosh user-friendliness and PC user-friendliness.”
Jabr has another explanation for why Apple is flagging: Macs are unstable. “If you’ve got a hundred people using Macs, you’re going to have five to ten people a day asking why the Mac froze,” he said. “It’s just too unstable.
“I have a friend who’s a doctor, and he was telling me how much he likes his Mac. And I said, ‘Well, can you see having a Mac hooked up to a life support system for one of your patients?’ And he says, ‘No, actually, mine crashes all the time.'”
Despite Apple’s troubles, the University has diverse needs that may help the computer survive here. Different departments and colleges have different requirements, and decisions about which computers to use are decentralized at the University.
Yen said even the University administration does not use one kind of desktop computer and wouldn’t want to be tied down to one system. “Technology changes so fast,” said Yen.
Because of this, the University supports a variety of systems, within reason, Yen said. “We cannot support many, many kinds of (machines), but we don’t want to support only these things. We want to walk in between, to benefit our users.”
Jerry Larson, an operations manager for academic and distributive computing services, estimates that computers on campus overall are evenly divided between Apple and IBM machines. Yen puts the ratio at approximately 40 to 60 in favor of IBM.
Currently, Larson said, at the 11 general computer labs at the University, Macs outnumber IBMs by 337 to 209. Larson said that Apple’s future at the University will depend on its future as a company.
“It depends on what place Apple has as a player in the marketplace of the future. We’re not going to stay with a platform that’s not being provided to the general populace.”
But Jabr says it is not unthinkable to him that someday most campus computing facilities will have no Macs in them. “I can see that. There’s just so much instability in the company.”
Jabr won’t speculate on whether Apple will go out of business. Yen said he doesn’t believe it will, and Svedahl, a Mac partisan, doesn’t either. “I think Apple’s going to rebound and become our biggest vendor again. They’ve got a lot of solid products they’re coming out with.”
Should the worst happen to Apple, there will be a “grace period” for University users and those at other schools, Dataquest’s Staten said. “A lot of the education market, they don’t need to upgrade too often. And the software they use, it’s not getting constantly refreshed with new features and functions. Learning is the same as it used to be.”