Apples Hot for Teacher

Apple's announcement of a new all-in-one Mac for the education market evokes a frisson of nostalgia for the initial iMac rollout.

Apple Computers announcement Monday of a new all-in-one Mac for the education market evoked a frisson of nostalgia for the initial iMac rollout in May 1998.

The new system, dubbed the eMac, represents a throwback to the design stylings of the original all-in-one consumer desktop introduced under the Steve Jobs administration. Like the Rev A iMac, Apple unveiled the eMac just before its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif. And like the original iMac, the eMac managed to sail in under the collective radar of the Mac Web.

To tick off the salient points of the new machine: The eMac, which is slated to ship in late May exclusively to education customers in the United States and Canada, resembles a supersize old-school iMac—or, more to the point, Apples vintage 17-inch Apple Studio Display, with which the new system shares a 17-inch CRT monitor.

Besides more screen real estate than the 15 diagonal inches allotted the classic iMac, the new system also trumps the original-recipe iMacs PowerPC G3 processor with a 700MHz G4 chip. A $999 configuration will ship with 128MB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive and a CD-ROM drive; a $1,199 version will pack a CD-RW/DVD-ROM Combo drive as well as a 56K-bps V.90 modem, Apple said.

(To round out its hardware rollouts, Apple simultaneously announced some incremental enhancements to its professional-strength Titanium PowerBook G4: an enhanced screen resolution of 1,280 by 854 pixels with higher brightness and better color saturation; a top processor speed of 800MHz, up from 667MHz; 1MB of Level 3 cache; and a new port for analog and digital video output.)

It may have taken the Mac Web by surprise, but the eMacs debut is in a certain sense the logical denouement of a hardware system thats sparked almost continual rumors over the past four years: a 17-inch blow-up of the classic iMac form factor.

Seen in that light—and in the wake of the far more radical, LCD-based next-generation iMac Apple introduced at Januarys Macworld Expo/San Francisco—the eMac seems practically retro. Indeed, some demanding Mac enthusiasts took to the message boards to criticize what they saw as Apples retreat from its recent commitment to LCD displays across the board (with the exception of a single CRT model at the entry level of the iMac line).

Nor does the eMac represent a new way of doing business for Apple. Its not (as the Wall Street Journal, for one, asserted) the first Mac hardware marketed expressly to education; its not even the first all-in-one system based on the current generation of PowerPC chips and created specifically with schools in mind. That distinction belongs to the Power Mac G3, a molar-shaped G3 system (the first self-contained Mac box to pack that generation of PowerPC processor, foreshadowing the iMac) that Apple designed late in the tenure of Jobs predecessor, Gil Amelio.

Thanks to the machines inherent clunkiness as well as Jobs eagerness to erase the Amelio legacy and create an all-in-one G3 in his own image, the Power Mac G3 was never vigorously promoted after its debut in March 1998; overshadowed by the far slicker iMac, the school model dried up and blew away within seven months.

Does the 2002 edition of an education Mac stand a better chance than its predecessor?

At first blush, I believe it does; the eMac looks like it handily combines the current state of the art in Mac motherboards with some durable design features well-suited to institutional use. The new iMacs stylish swing-arm and delicate LCD display may be more visually appealing than the blocky CRT-based design of the eMac, but the latter is far likelier to survive the punishing conditions of a grade-school science lab.

Starting at less than $1,000, the price is right for a full-featured multimedia system (albeit it one with scarcely enough RAM to run Mac OS X). And Apple has actually scheduled this release to allow education buyers enough time to include it in their fall budgets (a timing issue the Mac maker neglected when it introduced such ostensibly school-friendly wares as the original iBook and iMac DV, which debuted in July and October, respectively).

All this and WWDC, too?

Another question: How will the timing of this weeks hardware announcements affect next weeks WWDC? Word on the Mac street is that enrollment is down for this years installment of the crucial developers gathering, and some of my Mac developer acquaintances have interpreted Apples aggressive pitch for attendees as a further sign that the company is concerned that the show may be losing steam in the face of restrictive travel budgets and general tech-market ennui.

Hardware surprises during Jobs keynote presentation seem far less likely in the wake of this weeks rollouts. Nevertheless, the burst of excitement theyve generated—and Apples demonstrable commitment to retaining its key education market—should lend some much-needed momentum to an event thats primarily directed at encouraging software development among third parties.

Apple was unusually frank in announcing that Jobs speech to third-party developers will focus on a preview of the next major rev of Mac OS X; it even broke precedent in publicly identifying that release as "Jaguar," the previously unacknowledged code name eWEEK first reported last year.

End-user hardware systems arent the primary focus of this professional gathering, but the knowledge that Apple is minding the shop with an eye toward students as well as mobile pros will help reassure developers that their efforts to support Mac OS X wont be squandered.

Apples pre-WWDC iMac rollout in 1998 managed to enthuse consumers and software makers alike. Heres hoping that in 2002, the company can do the same with buyers and developers who serve the education market.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is online editor for Ziff Davis Medias Baseline and CIO Insight magazines.