If you’ve been waiting for the perfect moment to buy computers and peripherals for your schools, now’s your chance.

Competition among manufacturers is ferocious, and it is likely only to get fiercer. Result: a golden opportunity to knock down those computer-to-student ratios.

Why is competition so intense right now? Economic problems in Asian markets have derailed many overseas sales. That slowdown hit computer makers just as domestic business and consumer computer purchases were taking a breather. To compensate, manufacturers are turning to education.

“With Apple slipping and the market growing, we’re starting to see a lot more companies targeting education,” says James Staten, the computer industry analyst at the Dataquest market research firm in Stamford, Conn.

To stand out in an already-busy field, players are offering tempting deals.

For example, San Jose, Calif.-based Acer, the world’s third largest computer manufacturer, began to focus on education only late last year. Now it is attacking the market with a range of aggressively priced desktops, workstations, and laptops. (Acer bought Texas Instrument’s mobile computing operations in 1997.)

Toward the end of this year, says Keith Cullum, Acer’s director of education marketing, the company will launch a portable computer priced around $700 and designed specifically for classrooms.

While Acer was organizing its attack, other companies were busy selling. Dataquest reports that Compaq, Gateway, and Micron all increased education sales by the same 83 percent last year.

“Incredible growth rates like this show these companies are concentrating on education,” says Staten.

Even “Big Blue,” which lost its early domination of the non-Apple segment of the market, is paying more attention.

“For a long time it seemed IBM had forgotten about the education market,” says Mary Buchfuehrer, the director of management information systems for Johnston County schools in Smithfield, N.C. But Johnston County placed a large order with IBM, who saw its education sales jump by 24 percent last year.

And of course, Apple is far from dead. Although its education sales have been declining, it still accounted for 27 percent of shipments to the education market last year, giving it twice the market share of runner-up Compaq, according to Dataquest.

Dataquest’s Staten sees signs Apple is recovering: “Last quarter [1997] and first quarter this year, sales leveled off and even showed a little increase, although it’s too soon to say they are growing again.”

Shop around

Table 1 indicates an important fact about the way schools and school districts have been buying computers: They shop all over the place. Only three companies–Apple, Compaq, and Dell–manage a market-share of more than 10 percent.

“A lot of schools buy from local resellers who make computers for them,” Staten said. “They may even buy from former teachers or IT [information technology] managers or companies that designed software for the schools and build their PCs, too.”

With so much choice, buyers must have a clear idea of what they need. The key is to know what software you’re going to run, because the software determines what computer power you need. The problem is that a computer usually lives for from three to five years, but in schools it might be around for another decade. No one knows what software will be used over that period.

Because upgrading is expensive, when labor costs are included, it generally is cheaper in the long run to buy more computing capacity than you think you’ll need. This is especially true now, when it is easier to get money to buy computers than to maintain them.

The idea is to consider not just purchase price but total cost of ownership (TCO)–what the computer is going to cost over its life. The Gartner Group estimates that in the corporate world, hardware and software represent only 32 percent of TCO. Technical support, upgrades, upkeep, administration, and training quickly inflate your costs, so it makes sense to buy a computer that minimizes total costs.

Manageability

One aspect of TCO is the ability to manage a networked computer remotely, via the network, rather than having someone, often a high-priced technician, actually visit each machine. With a computer that can be managed remotely–a “manageable computer,” in technical jargon–a network administrator can download software, repair glitches, and reconfigure a machine from one central workstation. Much of this work can be done automatically during dead time–perhaps at night–when the computer is not in use.

The administrator can easily keep track of the hardware, the configuration, and the software installed on each machine on the network. This saves time and money when maintenance must be scheduled, when an upgrade is needed or when a teacher wants to know if a program will run on a specific machine. And should a desperate teacher call with a software problem, the administrator can see exactly what’s on the teacher’s screen and can probably solve the problem.

A manageable computer also can save time and money by automatically advising the network administrator of impending problems. For instance, some manageable computers can anticipate when a hard drive is running out of space or is about to crash. When hardware does fail, the network administrator can usually diagnose the problem remotely.

“The administrator can dispatch a technician, not to see what’s wrong, but with a replacement part to make the repair without having to make two or three trips,” says John Abrams, product marketing manager for Dell Computer’s Optiplex systems software.

“By implementing appropriate management technology, you can do a lot more with a lot fewer resources,” adds George Warren, education marketing manager at Dell Computer. (For more on computer “manageability,” see page 00.)

Serviceability

Another aspect controlling TCO is serviceability. Most models of top-tier manufacturers are designed to facilitate hardware upgrades and repairs. For instance, the cover of the IBM 300PL has easy-lift tabs for quick access to the guts of the machine. The CD-ROM and hard drives sit in a cage that flips up and out of the way, and the motherboard slides out of its socket without the need to remove cables or adapter cards.

“When you have to send someone out for a repair or an upgrade, you want them to be able to do the job quickly,” says Warren.

Check the design of any computer you plan to buy to be sure it allows for easy service. Serviceability need not cost more, but you must shop wisely, says Scott Garren, president of Boston-based educational technology consultants Garren Shay Associates.

Specs for tomorrow

A third way to cut TCO is to buy more computing power than you think you’ll need, because upgrades are expensive when the cost of labor is included.

“Don’t buy last year’s processor or hard drive hoping for a price break,” advises Bill Cawthon, systems marketing manager at Amera Computer Inc., a small computer manufacturer in Houston that specializes in the education market. “You should move to the middle instead of the low end. You do no favors for either your students or the taxpayers by buying old technology. You’ll just be going back to the well sooner.”

Cawthon recommends a Pentium II or one of the new AMD K6 processors, because Intel has stopped making plain old Pentium chips. To stretch technology dollars, he suggests Intel’s new Celeron processor, which is a stripped-down, low-cost Pentium II that has plenty of power and will be easy to upgrade if that becomes necessary.

Mark Kelly, director for education at Gateway, advises not to go below a 233-MHz processor.

For memory, 32 Mg of RAM is the practical minimum for multimedia; 64 Mg, even 128 Mg, will probably pay off in the long run. “I wouldn’t consider anything less than 32 Mg,” says Johnston County schools’ Buchfuehrer.

If the computer will stand alone, a 4.3 Gb hard drive is probably the minimum. For a networked machine, you’ll likely get away with 2.1 Gb.

“One thing you can count on with software is that it will require more and more resources, perhaps not a new processor or architecture, but definitely more RAM and more hard drive,” says Cawthon.

Therefore, you probably should buy a multimedia computer even if you don’t need the capacity now. This advice seems to have been broadly accepted. “We rarely sell a system without multimedia,” says Dell’s Warren.

On the other hand, don’t go for full-motion video capability unless you are going to use it now. The technology is immature and changing too quickly.

Computers bought today for stand-alone use probably should have a fast modem. “You don’t know which computer you are going to want to use for internet access,” says Gateway’s Kelly.

Stand-alone computers should be network-ready, because the use of networks is growing so quickly. Dell provides optional integrated network cards for $75 per machine.

You’ll probably kick yourself if you buy a computer that doesn’t have a Universal Serial Bus Connector. These so-called USB ports, which are used to connect newer peripherals, are available now on more expensive computers and are likely to become standard soon, according to technology consultant Garren. Apple’s new education-targeted iMac uses USB ports for all peripherals.

“Underestimated requirements often lead to premature replacement or costly upgrades,” sums Amera’s Cawthon.