When high-school freshman head off to class in the Henrico County Public Schools district next fall, they'll get more than just a locker and some textbooks in their new classes.
"Our ninth graders will come, and we'll say, 'Here's your new iBook,'" said Dr. Mark Edwards, the school district's superintendent.
Edwards isn't kidding. Henrico County placed an order for 23,000 of the new iBooks -- enough for every middle- and high-school student and teacher in the Richmond, Virginia-area school district. Apple touted the news as the single largest sale of portable computers ever in the education market.
"We're going to take all these beautiful iBooks, put them in the hands of teachers and students, and change the world," Edwards said.
That was music to the ears of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who devoted a substantial portion of the iBook's unveiling Tuesday to talking about Apple's role in education. "Apple has been helping teachers teach and students learn since 1977," Jobs said.
It's no accident that Apple tabbed Edwards and Henrico County schools to share the stage with the newly unveiled iBook. Apple has promised to reassert itself in the education market, and the new iBook design clearly represents the company's opening salvo in those efforts.
While Apple is still a major player in the education market -- Jobs noted Tuesday that the company sold more notebooks to schools and students than any other PC maker -- it's no longer the unquestioned leader in the field. Industry analysts reported that Dell jumped ahead of Apple in education sales last year -- a situation Apple executives have vowed to reverse.
Since that time, Apple has brought in Cheryl Vedoe as vice president of education marketing and solutions and Jim Marshall as vice president of education sales. The company also paid $62 million to buy PowerSchool, a Web-based student information system. And, when reporting Apple's second-quarter earnings last month, Apple Chief Financial Officer Fred Anderson said the company would take a "back to basics" approach to regain its position as the computer maker of choice in education.
The latest iBook seems to fit right in with that strategy. Market research firm IDC says demand for notebooks grew 2.5 times faster than did demand for desktop computers last year. And Apple had a leading 18 percent share of the education notebook market.
Apple cites other factors that make the new iBook ideal for the classroom. Its smaller design -- only slightly larger than an 8.5-by-11-inch piece of notebook paper, Jobs pointed out -- allows the laptop to easily fit in a backpack. The iBook is also more mobile than its desk-bound brethren, especially with built-in support for wireless networking. Every iBook comes with two built-in antennas and a slot for an option AirPort card. Instead of turning scarce classroom space into computer labs, Jobs said, schools could stock up on AirPort-equipped iBooks, transporting them across campus on a cart.
"The computers move from room to room, not the students," Jobs said.
As far as Henrico County Superintendent Edwards is concerned, the iBooks more than fit the bill for what the schools under his supervision need.
"We've looked at a variety of platforms, but in terms of durability and the service provided, the Mac just knocks it out," he said.
The school district is looking at ways the 23,000 iBooks can bring the most benefit to Henrico County's 18,500 middle- and high-school students. Edwards is particularly excited about the potential educational uses for software such as iMovie and iTunes, as well as the networking capabilities with AirPort.
"This will change how we teach and how we learn," he said.