Tech Industry

Notebooks retooled for schools

A Santa Clara, California-based start-up starts shipping the first of its "ruggedized" laptops, specially designed to withstand the K-12 classroom.

Finally, a notebook you can take to the monkey bars.

A Santa Clara, California-based startup called NetSchools has started shipping the first of its "ruggedized" laptops, specially designed to withstand the wear and tear, spills and thrills of the K-12 classroom.

The new portable form-factor aims to capitalize on a growing niche.

The education technology market has grown an estimated 15 to 25 percent per

NetSchools StudyPro
year over the last several years and should maintain that pace. Spending in the 1997-98 school year is expected to reach $5.2 billion, up from $4.3 billion in the 1996-97 school year, according to a study by the research firm Quality Education Data.

So far, most schools have focused on purchasing desktop computers because of the prohibitive cost of buying and maintaining notebooks. Notebook computers also present an easier target for theft. Nonetheless, educators are interested in notebooks because they take up less classroom space, and students can do work from home if they don't have a PC.

"Right now less than five percent of the computers purchased are laptops," based on preliminary data from a research project called EdTech States, said Jeanne Hayes, president and CEO of Quality Education Data. However, "There is definitely a growing demand for portables. A number of education grants we've seen have proposed using laptops because of the ability to extend the school day to have community access and parental involvement," Hayes says.

The NetSchools StudyPro is the company's product for this emerging portion of the education technology market. The StudyPro is a six-pound, Windows 95-based laptop that comes with a 133-MHz AMD 5x86 processor and 10.4-inch color display. It also has a keyboard that can withstand liquid spilled on it, a sealed battery compartment, and no hard disk drive or floppy disk drive inside for improved durability. A handle is attached to the case.

Files are stored in 40 megabytes of temporary "flash" memory, allowing students to take the computer home and work on assignments. When the student reconnects to the school's infrared wireless LAN (local area network), files are uploaded to a central server. Teachers can then view and grade the assignments, explains Toni Morgan, vice president of product marketing for NetSchools.

There is also a feature for parents which allows them to access securely stored messages from the teacher, so that parents can track student grades and progress, for example.

"We have designed the StudyPro especially for K-12 students. We have reduced barriers to implementing a laptop solution for kids," Morgan said. "For example, the solid state disk and modular components don't allow kids to get in an tamper with files. The system is theft proof--we have tamperproof screws on the casing and the notebook is programmed to be set with a timer so that if it doesn't see the LAN within a specified amount of time, it will refuse to operate until reset by an administrator," according to Morgan.

Apple Computer, which has long had an extensive education presence, has enjoyed considerable success with the eMate 300, an $800 portable computer based on the Newton operating system mainly sold to education markets. Although some education resellers have said that schools are wary of purchasing the systems because there is less software available for the Newton platform, others claim that sales of the unit have been relatively good.

NetSchools sells its notebooks bundled with a server computer running the Windows NT operating system and equipment for an infrared LAN connection. No pricing was available, but Morgan says the notebook alone costs around $1,200.

Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures investment firm, which has a financial stake in NetSchools, is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.