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Feature

Apple developing new Mac for education

Exclusive: Apple Computer is working feverishly on the design of a new Macintosh computer that the company hopes will strengthen its position in the education sector when it goes on sale later this year, AppleInsider has learned.

The new low-cost PC, which will act as a replacement for Apple's now defunct eMac line, appears to be on track to catch the latter half of the 2006 educational buying season.

Based on a series of proprietary checks, it's believed that the Cupertino, Calif.-based company is aligning component suppliers for a manufacturing ramp of the computers that it plans to initiate around the September timeframe.

Technically, this means that Apple's much anticipated professional line of Intel-based Power Mac computers — expected to make their debut this summer under the "Mac Pro" moniker — won't be the last of the company's PC offerings to make the transition from PowerPC to Intel chips.

In keeping true to its roots of designing educational Macs as plug-and-play solutions, people familiar with Apple's product roadmap say the company is building the new Mac around an all-in-one enclosure. Though unlike the eMac, which employed cumbersome CRT-based displays, the new educational computer will follow a design pattern similar to the company's LCD-based iMac Core Duo desktops, these people say.

The departure away from CRT displays and towards pricier flat-screens means that Apple will have to carefully balance its component costs and shave as much as possible off the computer's bill-of-materials if it plans to hit a home run with educational institutions.

Although the Mac maker said its U.S. educational channel sales increased by approximately 16 percent during the first quarter of 2006 compared to the first quarter of 2005, the company has come under tremendous competitive pressure in the sector over the last several years.

"Uncertainty in this channel remains as several competitors of the company have either targeted or announced their intention to target the education market for personal computers, which could negatively affect the company’s market share," Apple has repeatedly stated in regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. "Although the company believes it has taken certain steps to strengthen its position in the education market, there can be no assurance that the company will be able to increase or maintain its share of the education market or execute profitably on large strategic arrangements."

But just as Apple's is expected to incur increased costs associated with transitioning its educational Mac to more modern technologies, the computer's new industrial design is expected to eliminate some of the financial complexities of the eMac. One of the pitfalls Apple discovered while building the unwieldy CRT-based Mac was that its bulbous enclosure quickly became one of — if not the most — expensive part of the computer to manufacturer.

In using its new iMac design as a blueprint for the eMac replacement, Apple will also save on freight and packaging costs that will result from the computer's substantially smaller footprint and lighter weight . It's also believed that the Mac will borrow industry standard components already employed by Apple's Mac mini and MacBook line of consumer PCs, enabling further cost reductions.

In April of 2004, the last time Apple introduced a major revision to the eMac, it priced models at $799 and $999. While pricing for the new educational Mac has yet to be determined, it should fall well below the company's low-end consumer iMac offering, which fetches $1299.

It's still unclear whether the computer will be made readily available for purchase by the average consumer.

When Apple introduced the eMac as a low-cost alternative to the flat-screen "sunflower" iMac in April 2002, it initially restricted sales to educational buyers. However, demand for the computers amongst consumers proved to be so strong that a month later the company made the educational Mac available to the general public.

On October 12, 2005, shortly before the computer met its ultimate demise, Apple once again restricted sales to educational institutions and returned to its "E is for Education" marketing scheme that had been attached to the product from its inception.

After exhausting much of its remaining eMac inventory to educational buyers later that year, Apple began offering its higher-margin all-in-one iMac as a replacement for the eMac. The company plans to continue to offer the iMac to its educational customers until the new Intel-based eMac successor makes its debut in the fall.