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Maine’s school laptop contract revives PC-Mac debate

Maine’s new school laptop contract has renewed debate over Macs vs. PCs in schools.

A spokeswoman for Maine’s pro-business governor said one of the factors that tipped the scale in favor of Hewlett-Packard in a contract to provide new laptops to thousands of public school students is that its laptops utilize Windows, the operating system favored by businesses.

The selection of the HP ProBook 440 laptop over the less costly Apple iPad tablet or the more-costly Apple MacBook Air laptop revived the Apple-vs.-PC debate that dates to the inception of the program, which currently distributes about 70,000 laptops to schools.

“Most of the businesses in Maine and the U.S. are using a computer that runs Windows,” Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, said April 29. “We don’t want it to be a toy. We want it to be a tool to prep students for their future and what’s used in the workplace.”

(Next page: The debate unfolds)

Not everyone is convinced that what works best for businesses will produce the best results in schools.

“We’re a business, if [the governor] wants to use that metaphor. Our business is teaching and learning, and we have to have the best tools we can get to accomplish our mission,” said Crystal Priest, district technology coordinator in SAD 4 in Guilford, who suggested the best solution might vary from district to district.

Maine, the only state to provide laptops to public school students statewide, worked with Hawaii and Vermont to negotiate the contract focusing on five different laptops and tablets.

All of them passed muster, but Maine selected the HP as its preferred vendor.

The weekend announcement that HP, at $254 per PC per year under a four-year lease, won the competition means its laptops will be fully funded by the state for all seventh- and eighth-graders in public schools. The state will leverage its buying power for high schools, about half of which participate.

Apple’s iPad tablet came in $217 per device. Other choices were the Apple MacBook Air, the HP ElitePad Tablet, and a laptop by CTL. Networking is an additional cost.

School districts can choose one of the other options, paying the difference if necessary. An Apple representative told Priest that its lowest price would be honored even though it’s not the preferred vendor.

Apple had no comment.

School administrators don’t have time to waste in coming to a final decision. Decisions must be made quickly to ensure the computers or tablets are delivered before the fall.

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said the PC-vs.-Mac discussion dates back to the original contract. Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder and late CEO, wanted so badly to be part of the program that the company took a loss when the first 35,000-plus laptops were distributed in 2002 and 2003.

This fall, the new units will represent the third time devices have been upgraded since the first laptops were distributed 11 years ago.

“All of those great things that we do with [the current laptop program] can be done in the Windows platform,” Connerty-Marin said, “and you can give students experience using the platform that’s going to be more prevalent in business.”

Microsoft Windows remains the most prevalent operating system for computers and laptops in the U.S., even though Apple continues to catch up; meanwhile, customers continue to shift to tablets, the fastest-growing market segment, according to Connecticut-based Gartner Research.

On April 29, schools were abuzz as teachers and students discussed the weekend news.

Many weren’t yet sold on HP laptops.

Shawn Favreau, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Freeport Middle School, said teachers are accustomed to Apple software. And he’s not sure laptops are the way to go, anyway.

“In the future, I don’t think a standard laptop is going to be what people are using. In four years, people will be using some sort of tablet devices. I guess the question is whether you want to be ahead of the curve, or just stay with that status quo while everyone else keeps moving,” he said.

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