If you know who rules school computer sales, you have a pretty good idea of what formats are likely to be favored by school software writers and you enjoy a sort of indirect, peer review among the brands vying for your school technology dollars.

Trouble is, it can be devilishly difficult to separate truth from hype when you look at the claims and counter-claims offered by manufacturers, resellers, and market research outfits.

Gateway 2000, the South Dakota-based manufacturer of Intel-standard PCs, claims to be overtaking Apple as the number one supplier of desktop and portable computers to the education market. Yet Apple and some industry analysts disagree.

In an article published on ZDNet, Gateway cited figures from Computer Intelligence (CI), a market research division of Ziff-Davis Inc., to back its claim. CI reported that Gateway held 18.7 percent of the school market through the first half of 1997, compared to 13.5 percent for Apple.

Compaq, IBM, and Dell followed with 10.9, 8.0, and 6.1 percent, respectively, according to CI.

But figures released by Dataquest, another respected market research firm, tell a very different story. Dataquest ranks Apple far ahead of the competition. Through the first three quarters of 1997, Dataquest calculates that Apple captured 29.2 percent of the education market, followed by Dell with 10.4 percent. Gateway ranked a distant sixth, with only 4.9 percent.

Whom do you trust?

First, you should understand how these market research firms operate. Computer companies pay them for exclusive information revealing how they stack up against the competition. Why? In the top-secret world of the high-tech industry, companies generally don’t release their own sales figures to the public. As one insider put it, “They don’t want the competition to know exactly how they’re doing. They don’t want to tip their own hand.”

To determine market share, then, a research firm may survey vendors or end-users. A “bottom-up” approach asks vendors how many units they have sold, model by model; a “top-down” approach asks end-users—in the education market, these would be districts and schools—what models they have recently purchased.

Depending on the methodology and the sample population of the survey, results can vary widely—so always be wary of their claims.

CI declined to reveal what methodology the company used to come up with its figures, claiming this was confidential information.

Stuff and nonsense

“Gateway’s contention is nonsense,” countered Scott Miller, a market analyst from Dataquest. “Those figures are way off base.” Miller defended his own company’s figures, claiming that Dataquest combines a bottom-up and top-down approach that results in data that are much more accurate.

“If you look pretty much anywhere else, you’ll see that our figures reflect what’s really happening in the education market,” he said.

Both Apple and Dataquest admit that Apple’s share of the education market has slipped, but not as far as Gateway is suggesting. Before Windows existed, schools and districts purchased mostly Apple computers because they were easier to use. The advent of a true Windows operating system with Windows 95, however, began to level the playing field. The trend was accelerated by the proliferation of Windows-compatible business and home applications. Schools, which have always used alternatives to Apple software in the front office, began to worry that kids would be disadvantaged if they didn’t become familiar with the applications that dominate the workplace. As a result of all these factors, many schools now are opting for Windows-based platforms over Macs.

WinTel is the trend

Michael Coe, a spokesman for Dell, claimed 83 percent growth in Dell’s education sales last year as a result of the trend toward Windows software and Intel processors. Gateway’s contention of market supremacy aside, Dell is using Dataquest’s figures to bolster its own claim of being number one in Windows-based education sales.

Gateway and Dell have been able to chip away at Apple’s lead for other reasons. Both will build machines customized to your exact specifications. Both also are bearing down to counter the high volume of education software written for Apple brand equipment. Gateway has developed its own line of educational software called Learning 2000, and Dell has formed software alliances with the likes of Computer Curriculum Corporation and Prentice Hall.

Apple has slipped

“We have lost some ground,” conceded Jacob Kandathil, director of marketing for Apple’s education division. “But our market share certainly hasn’t flip-flopped like [CI’s] numbers say.”

Grace Fong, director of market research for Apple’s education division, told eSchool News that Apple continues to be a solid choice for educators for many reasons. With 20 years in the education market, Fong said, Apple knows the market well. The company conducts its own primary research, she pointed out, and offers a strong multimedia base.

Gateway 2000

http://www.gateway.com

Apple Computer Inc.

http://www.apple.com

Dell Computer Corp.

http://www.dell.com

Computer Intelligence

http://www.ci.zd.com

Dataquest

http://gartner12.gartnerweb.com/dq/static/dq.html

Quality Education Data

http://www.qeddata.com

ZDNet

http://www.zdnet.com