For years, electronics giant Texas Instruments Inc. (TI) has been the dominant seller of graphing calculators to middle and secondary schools and students. Now, a handful of high-tech challengers, boasting superior functionality and comparable prices, is giving educators a greater range of choices and threatening TI’s grip on this multimillion-dollar market.

Big-name companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Casio Inc. are rolling out new stand-alone graphing calculators designed to topple the popular TI-83 in K-12 classrooms, and upstart companies, such as Oregon-based Infinity Softworks Inc., are exploring solutions that would do away with the calculator altogether, replacing it with comparable software that is downloaded onto a multi-functional handheld computer or personal digital assistant (PDA).

The onslaught of fresh competition is something TI, which estimates it manufactures three-quarters of the graphing calculators used in schools today, has had little of in the past. It also represents a whole new set of choices for school officials and curriculum planners, many of whom are just beginning to explore these options seriously.

Among the most powerful alternatives are a number of new graphing calculator solutions from HP. The company, best known for its computers, has long been the leading supplier of calculators to universities and professionals in the financial and scientific fields, but it has had little presence in middle and high schools–until now.

With a mid-October rollout planned for three new graphing calculators–the HP 48g II, 49g+, and 39g+–company executives are hoping to spur competition at the K-12 level, creating better pricing in the marketplace and providing more options to schools and teachers–potential customers HP says have been neglected in the past.

“HP calculators are coming back full force into this space,” said Fred Valdez, general manager of the company’s calculator division. “Our organization had gotten away from a true calculator product, but now has come back to it and is refocusing on the education market after seeing a need for calculators in the classroom.”

According to HP, its new graphing calculator models are equipped with functionality and features that are similar and, in some cases, superior to the options available with the TI-83 Plus and the more advanced TI-83 Plus Silver Edition. Although both manufacturers address a rich selection of graphing and mathematical concepts–including standard functions for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, as well as more advanced commands for determining standard deviation and mean–they also offer tools for evaluating the slope of a line, creating charts and tables, using text, plotting graphs, and building scatter plots and histograms, among other things.

Despite these similarities, however, HP hopes to distance itself from TI’s product line by providing solutions that boast greater memory and storage capacity and that allow for easier transfer of data between calculator and computer. For instance, while the TI-83 Plus–the company’s most popular school product–comes equipped with 24 kilobytes of RAM and 160 kilobytes of Flash ROM memory, HP’s 39g+ for high school math students is loaded with 256 kilobytes of RAM. Both machines have cables that run from the calculator to the computer, allowing users to upload data into spreadsheet format and download new software applications.

Longtime calculator maker Casio also offers products with similar functionalities to schools. For instance, its Algebra FX 2.0 graphing calculator has 144 kilobytes of RAM and the ability to download software upgrades, in addition to standard graphing features and the ability to create and store charts and tables. On the high end, its ClassPad 300 even offers a PDA-like touch screen monitor with a collection of applications to support self-study and more advanced, three-dimensional graphing.

But that increased functionality comes at a price, selling for $180. The TI-83 Plus, which is listed at $100, can be found in stores for as low as $84, according to TI executives. At press time, HP had yet to announce pricing for its latest models but insisted that pricing would be “comparable” to that of TI.

One feature HP has over any of its competitors is its ability to do equations in Reverse Polish Notation (RPN)–a function that is exclusive to HP machines and is used often by professionals in engineering and scientific fields as a quicker, more efficient means of calculation. All HP calculators also offer the standard algebraic computational structure more commonly used in schools.

Despite how crowded the market for graphing calculators seemingly has become, TI executives contend the company has little fear of losing traction with its school customers, many of whom have long-standing relationships with the company and accept the argument that TI calculators are not crossover tools direct from the business world, but rather built solely with schools in mind.

HP cites the dominance of its calculators in fields such as banking, engineering, and science as a key benefit for students. The calculators are drop-tested for durability and screen strength to ensure suitability in schools, Valdez said, but they are not billed as school-specific machines. HP builds its calculators under the assumption that students who learn to use them in the classroom eventually will take them into the workplace, where they will continue to be used throughout their professional lives. The idea, according to Valdez, is to establish functional familiarity at an early age and to encourage repeat buyers down the road.

Even so, HP says it is exploring ways to provide more school-centered applications. One possibility is offering add-ons similar to the study guides and downloadable quizzing features currently available on high-end machines from companies such as TI and Casio.

“Education continues to be an area where we can bring forth different products,” Valdez said. “We certainly believe there is space in this market for another player.”

Software solutions

But how much space? As handheld computers and PDAs become increasingly popular in schools, makers of graphing calculators also find themselves competing against software programs that effectively transform these more versatile, one-to-one computing devices into graphing calculator tools.

Companies such as ImagiWorks Inc., maker of the ImagiMath software, and Infinity Softworks, which just recently began marketing its powerOne Graph version 4.0 to schools, both make products that turn Palm handhelds into functional graphing calculators.

Although TI and HP acknowledge the use of PDAs in schools already has taken a chunk out of the graphing calculator market, both manufacturers say there remains a continued need for the standalone graphing calculator in schools.

Still, TI has taken steps to bolster its products from the threat of PDAs, primarily by adding functionality so they more closely resemble complete handheld computing solutions. Makers of software-based calculator solutions challenge the comparison of TI calculators to true handheld computing devices, noting the far wider range of functions that handhelds can perform–from word processing to audio and video storage and playback functionality.

Tom Ferrio, TI’s vice president of educational and productivity solutions, counters that stand-alone calculators such as the TI-83 still hold a distinct advantage over PDA alternatives. Although many standalone graphing calculators are approved for use on such standardized tests as the PSAT, the SAT, and the ACT, along with most Advanced Placement exams, PDAs–because of the potential for online communication and cheating–still are forbidden, he said.

Then there’s the issue of price. While a high-end graphing calculator can be purchased for under $100, PDAs–even on the low end–generally are more expensive. Perhaps the most economical handheld computer on the market, the Palm Zire, sells to schools for just over $100, while its more versatile cousin, the m130, is listed at $179 and reportedly sells to schools in the $130 range. At press time, device maker palmOne (formerly Palm Inc.) was poised for a product-line announcement expected to alter significantly the pricing structure for PDAs.

Of course, once schools purchase the hardware, they also must buy the software. For instance, Infinity Softwork’s powerOne Graph application sells for a list price of $60. Special school pricing and impending reductions aside, the lowest a parent or student could expect to pay in September for a PDA with graphing calculator functionality was $160. For schools, the prices could be lower, depending on the volume purchased.

Still, proponents of the PDA movement in schools contend the extra cash is money well spent. No matter how many add-ons and software applications calculator manufacturers such as TI develop for use in the classroom, they still are limited by the complexity of a one-color display and a keyboard interface that often demands at least three functions from a single button, PDA proponents say. This is not the case with handheld computers, they say, which rely on an electronic stylus instead of push-button technology.

“By utilizing the touch-screen capability and larger, color displays of handheld computers, powerOne Graph takes the emphasis off keystrokes and line-item entry,” said Infinity Softworks Chief Executive Officer Elia Freedman. “Professionals and students tell us they spend less time learning their calculator and more time engaged in their work and classroom lessons.”

Freedman did not dispute that a higher price point and the PDA’s lack of acceptance on most standardized tests present a hurdle for the acceptance of software alternatives in classrooms. Still, it’s a barrier that can be overcome, he said. Currently, handheld advocates are lobbying to get the machines approved for use on standardized tests.

Differing opinions

In schools, opinions regarding which solutions work best are mixed.

For example, in the San Diego City Schools–a school system supporting more than 140,000 students–Director of Mathematics Kris Acquarelli said she sees no reason why schools should give up their TI-83s for another brand of calculator, or even for a PDA-based software application.

Acquarelli said she has heard very few complaints that the TI push-button interface is too complex or difficult to operate. By now, she said, both the students and the teachers are familiar with it. In the event that educators do have questions about the technology, however, Acquarelli said TI offers excellent support packages and professional workshops designed to help educators integrate the tools into existing curricula.

But Paula Jameson, a technology curriculum resource teacher at Green Middle School in Green, Ohio, sees things differently. “I don’t see why anyone would buy a TI-83,” Jameson said.

At Green Middle School, students are using handheld computers with graphing software from both ImagiWorks and Infinity Softworks.

Jameson said she prefers handhelds to stand-alone calculators because of their versatility. With handhelds, students and educators get desktop computer functions in conjunction with their graphing tools. This way, she said, students can transfer information from their graphs over to Excel spreadsheets and other diagrams directly on their handhelds without having to download what’s already stored on the calculator to a desktop.

Color is another benefit, she said. With color graphing capability, handheld software is able to offer something that no calculator can, allowing students to differentiate between different lines and graphs by way of color.

That attribute has come in particularly handy for students in special-education classes, she contends, many of whom rely on different colors to understand and grasp key concepts. “It helps all the kids learn–not just the very brightest,” she said.

But in Jameson’s school, students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the use of handhelds. Teachers have them, too. For educators, she said, the benefit is one of collaboration. Using handhelds, teachers can swap lesson plans back and forth and exchange ideas from classroom to classroom. While calculators allow for similar communication to an extent, they offer neither the immediacy nor the ubiquity of a handheld, she said.

Educators also make use of a free Palm emulator, which enables them to give demonstrations via computer or network-connected television in much the same way that TI’s overhead projection device works in the classroom.

“With a handheld, there is so much more that you can do,” Jameson said. “There is just so much versatility.”

Regardless of which approach schools ultimately adopt, one thing seems clear: The multiplication of options only adds to educators’ purchasing power.

See these related links:

Casio Inc.

Hewlett-Packard Co.


Infinity Softworks

Texas Instruments