The heads of the two leading computer companies in the education market delivered simultaneous keynote speeches Jan. 9–Michael Dell, chairman of Dell Inc., at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, at the Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco. And although the timing of their remarks was coincidental, the announcements that each man made could resonate with schools.

Though Apple is No. 2 to Dell when it comes to computer sales in education, it wasn’t new computers that Jobs was touting. In fact, Jobs said his company is officially removing the word “Computer” from its name, changing it to Apple Inc., to reflect its wider focus on consumer electronics. Previously, Dell had taken the same step.

In line with the expanded purview, Jobs unveiled the much-anticipated iPhone, a touch-screen-controlled device that aims to reinvent the idea of the “smart phone”–a device now carried by an increasing number of school leaders. The iPhone combines three products–a mobile phone, a widescreen iPod, and an internet communications device complete with eMail, web browsing, searching, and maps–in one slim and lightweight handheld device.

The iPhone introduces a new interface that lets users control the device with just their fingers. “iPhone is a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone,” Jobs claimed. “We are all born with the ultimate pointing device–our fingers–and iPhone uses them to create the most revolutionary user interface since the mouse.”

The device allows users to make calls by simply pointing at a name or number. It reportedly syncs all of a user’s contacts from a PC, Mac, or internet service, so users always have their full list of contacts with them. Its pioneering Visual Voicemail, an industry first, lets users look at a listing of their voice-mail messages, decide which messages to listen to, then go directly to those messages without listening to prior messages. Just like eMail, this feature lets users immediately access only those messages that interest them the most.

When users need to type, the iPhone presents them with a touch keyboard on the screen that is predictive to prevent and correct mistakes, Jobs said. The device also reportedly includes an application that allows calendars to be synched automatically with a PC or Mac, as well as a 2-megapixel camera and an advanced photo-management application.

Tim Bajarin, principal analyst with Creative Strategies, said the iPhone appears poised to revolutionize the way cell phones are designed and sold.

“This goes beyond smart phones and should be given its own category called ‘brilliant’ phones,” he asserted. “Cell phones are on track to become the largest platform for digital music playback, and Apple needed to make this move to help defend [its] iPod franchise–as well as extend it beyond a dedicated music environment.”

The phones, which will operate exclusively on AT&T Inc.’s Cingular Wireless network, will start shipping in June. The 4-gigabyte model will cost $499, while an 8-gigabyte iPhone will be $599. It remains to be seen whether a $500 phone– despite its slim elegance, wide-screen monitor, and revolutionary features–is priced competitively, especially for schools.

“Prospects for the new device are positive, but it is not a given that Apple can win against a slew of wireless providers, phone manufacturers, and Microsoft, all of whom are similarly motivated to raise their flag on the same territory,” said James L. McQuivey, a communications technology professor at Boston University.

Even the phone’s name is in contention.

Linksys, a division of Cisco Systems Inc. that makes networking equipment for the home and small businesses, unveiled its new iPhone line of internet-enabled phones last month. Cisco has owned the trademark on the name “iPhone” since 2000. Although Cisco is agitating for Apple to make a public statement clarifying use of the name, Apple executives say their cellular phone doesn’t compete with Cisco’s internet phone.

Despite that uncertainty–and despite the fact that Apple’s phone won’t be available until June–Wall Street has initially blessed it. Apple shares jumped $7.10 to close at $92.57 on the Nasdaq Stock Market, creating about $6 billion in new shareholder wealth. The stock has traded in a 52-week range of $50.16 to $93.16.

At MacWorld, Jobs also introduced Apple TV, a set-top box that streams video from computers to television. Before Jobs’ keynote, the expected introduction of a product that would let users easily watch their downloaded movies on a television was already causing a stir.

“Companies tell me privately they are concerned that if Apple could get this right with the ease-of-use and quality of service, that Apple could do for home media what [it] did with the iPod and be the leading player overnight,” said Bajarin.

The device comes with a 40-gigabyte hard drive that stores up to 50 hours of video. It features an Intel Corp. microprocessor and can handle videos, photos, and music streamed from up to five computers within wireless range. The $299 video box will be available in February. Jobs also said Apple will begin selling movies from Paramount, increasing its online selection of movies from about 100 to about 250.

Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president for worldwide marketing, said Apple isn’t getting out of the computer business, despite the name change and new focus. It’s simply broadening its business.

“We sell Macintoshes and will continue to do so and are very happy with that business,” he said.

Going ‘green’

Dell, meanwhile, introduced a new environmental “Plant a Tree for Me” program in which it offered to plant a tree for every PC sold. It also challenged the industry to follow its lead with a free computer recycling program and introduced some new computing products and services of its own.

“Today, I challenge every PC maker to join us in providing free recycling for every customer in every country [in which] you do business, all the time–no exceptions,” Dell said. “It’s the right thing to do for our customers. It’s the right thing to do for our earth.”

The company has received high “green” marks from many environmental groups, including Greenpeace.

In 2004, Dell began offering free recycling of any brand of computer or printer if consumers bought a new Dell system. Disposal of old equipment can often be costly for schools.

Dell’s policy was revised in June so that consumers can recycle all Dell-branded printers, personal computers, or other electronics gear for free, no purchase of new Dell gear required. For those not buying a new system or who don’t have Dell equipment, the Round Rock, Texas, company will take back used electronics for $10 per box, as long as it weighs less than 50 lbs.

With a comedic assist from an actor appearing as the “Austin Powers” movie character Dr. Evil, Dell also announced a new “Plant a Tree for Me” program, in which customers can choose to have $2 of a laptop purchase, or $6 of a desktop purchase, go toward funds to plant trees around the world.

“We’re the first global technology company to offer customers the opportunity to offset the emissions associated with the electricity used to power their computers,” Dell said.

Dr. Evil gave his approval, and so did the audience, which clapped after the announcement. “We can’t destroy the planet, otherwise I have nothing to take over,” the stage villain quipped.

The trees will be placed in areas where they won’t be felled, such as state parks and wildlife areas, said Larry Selzer, president of the Conservation Fund, which is one of two environmental groups involved in the planting effort.

“This groundbreaking program encourages participation by inviting customers in the effort to address climate change,” he said. “No other company in the technology space is doing something as extraordinary as the Plant a Tree For Me program.”

Dell also unveiled several products, including a “Home Media Suite” with a new media center PC based on Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Vista operating system, a 27-inch flat-panel monitor, a printer, and wireless router; and a new online data-migration service called “Dell DataSafe,” in which users would let Dell store their digital photos, movies, music, or other data, so the company could pre-load the data onto a customer’s newly purchased systems.

Links:

Apple Inc.
http://www.apple.com

Dell Inc.
http://www.dell.com

Dell’s environmental focus
http://www.dell.com/earth