May 26, 2010
Law School Computing, Then and Now, Sort Of
There is a recent article in Inside Higher Ed that examines the proposition that the educational market is not important, or as important as it once was to tech companies. That's not to say that vendors don't like selling equipment or software to schools as much as how the relationship between vendors and educational institutions have changed. The article brought back memories of those heady days in the mid-1980s when law schools were able to negotiate substantial discounts or equipment donations from vendors. Law schools were vendor proving grounds for tech installations, and symbiotically, specific law schools could claim the mantle of technology leader. Not so much on that last point today. Every school is a technology leader, if by leader we mean mainstream technology consumer. Every school typically has a lab, wireless networking, wired classrooms, and an infrastructure that supports student computing. Tech support is tech support, but the standard front end is more or less defined by external expectations.
A second article several appeared few days later in the Chicago Tribune. The Illinois Institute of Technology announced that it was giving "free" iPads to all freshman in the fall semester. IIT, the article stated, will pay Apple $250,000 for the technology. That's 5,000 iPads at commercial rates. Doubtless that IIT got a bulk discount from Apple and the number of units is higher. That bulk purchase deal would be more or less the same for a commercial buyer these days. Apple isn't testing the iPad at IIT. The company is getting a bulk sale from an university it would have cozied up to 25 years ago. Why the change?
The fact is that computing standards weren't set back then, making the educational market a battleground for companies to create critical mass for their products. Law schools were courted by all kinds of marketers with the idea of creating installations that were used to market to law firms. Imagine ads reading "X number of law schools chose Wordstar as their word processor. Shouldn't you be using Wordstar?" Who can forget dot commands? Actually, a lot of people, which is why law schools have gone from proving grounds to just another customer. Standardization means no one has to fight over product variations. No one is battling over whether to install token ring instead of ethernet. Whatever battles go on today, they are not being fought much at the consumer level.
Students back then first came into contact with personal computers at a school, not at home. Those PCs did not have hard drives. They were equipped with only 16kb of memory, and cost some $2,400 each. I still have one of those original IBM PCs in my basement along with a monochromatic (amber, that is) Amdek monitor. The word "display" came much later when we all got more sophisticated and computing support got more complex. Compaq was an IBM clone running DOS and pushing against IBM for sales, though as I remember, even more expensive. Their marketing at the time should have been "IBM quality at Apple prices." Personal computing is a background fact of life now and those early comparisons no longer apply, except the characterization of Apple prices. Now basic student computing devices cost less that a typical semester's book list.
Consider how much the market has changed in that schools will standardize on a platform such as the Apple iPad as a matter of simplifying their own support costs AND paying someone to provide the hardware. Schools will now buy basic computing functionality from vendors (apps, email) as it's cheaper to outsource that stuff. And look at West's approach to WestlawNext. One would think that law schools were the natural place to try out the new interface. Selected firms and individuals got to shape the product. The only academic test now for the product is a brief period to check the roll-out to students en masse. It's sad in a way, that schools have come so far in their level of technical skill in managing computing that they have become just another customer, whether for hardware, software, or information. [MG]