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It is well-known that one key moment for Apple was selling 500 Apple IIs to the Minnesota school system in 1978.

I came across this video which discusses the background to that, including a reminder that it wasn't as simple as 'they liked the Apple II, so they bought it'; there was a competitive bidding process, apparently a genuine one, in which the winner was not preordained. Some vendors didn't get around to submitting a proposal.

The video just says that Apple did, and their proposal 'met specifications'.

What exactly were the specifications? What qualities was MECC looking for in a computer? How important were the various considerations like color and price?

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    You seem to assume Apple was selling into the educational market. According to Jobs, they were more likely donating computers, either for free or with significant deductions. "We couldn’t afford that as a company. But we studied the law and it turned out that there was a law already on the books, a national law that said that if you donated a piece of scientific instrumentation or computer to a university for educational and research purposes you can take an extra tax deduction. That basically means you don’t make any money, you lose some but you don’t lose too much."
    – tofro
    Feb 27 at 7:47
  • @tofro Right, not for free – Apple in 1978 was not big enough to give away computers for free and stay solvent – but with deductions, yes. I had been originally thinking, the Apple II was the most expensive of the 1977 Trinity so schools cannot have been very price-sensitive, then realized, they were not paying the sticker price. So that's one of the reasons I'm interested in finding out more; just how much were they willing and able to pay?
    – rwallace
    Feb 27 at 10:32
  • That's exactly the point with public procurement: Willing - nothing. able - as much as they had. And government budgets are allocated in a fairly different way in public procurement than they are in the "free economy" - it's more about "what's left" (especially in the educational sector) than "what's required"
    – tofro
    Feb 27 at 12:02
  • @tofro Working with large 'private' companies might tell a lesson of next to no difference between them and 'public' customers. Unless the requesting department is very keen on being involved, getting the result they want, procurement will always deliver from the bargain bin. After all, it is their main job to hit at the lowest price point.
    – Raffzahn
    Feb 27 at 14:03
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    @tofro And control at as many points inbetween. These are some of the most annoying meetings there are. (The others are Gummis, not the edible kind ... well, mostly not).
    – Raffzahn
    Feb 27 at 14:51

2 Answers 2

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That question is, unfortunately, borderline off-topic, because, in the end, it's not at all about computers, but politics. It seems to start on a number of false premises:

  1. The educational segment is just like any other market segment in a computer manufacturer's business - No, it's not. While any other market segment is used to make money, the educational segment is to gain market share and more like an investment. The question here is more like "how much does it cost?" for a manufacturer rather than "how much can we make?". So, the final price of the offering is pretty insignificant and very much dependent on how much of the taxpayer's money the state is willing to invest. Most countries have legislation that allows stark tax reduction on donations to educational organisations that will influence those decisions.
  2. Educational institutes create specifications on abstract educational requirements for their purposes - No, they do not. More typically, public procurement works like that: They develop a preference for the machine/environment they would like to have, and simply copy (in a more or less obvious way) the specifications of that machine into their requirements, making sure they get exactly what they like. So, (only lightly exaggerated) if somebody in that committee happened to fall in love with Oregon Trail (not that that one would have existed by then...), it was likely the final requirements would strangely align with Apple's specifications. (Note I don't say real commercial procurement deviates much from there. But ideally, it does)
  3. The educational market follows the same rules as any other market segment - No, it does not. As that market is ruled by other, rather political than economical influences. There is a reason why the rulings for max. income tax deductions on computer donations to schools (Computer Contribution and Teacher Training Act of 1983, based on a proposal of a California Rep.) basically describe an Apple II. There's also a reason why a proposed amendment (introduced by a Texas Rep) asks for minimum 184kB of disk space for elegibility (Apple's Disk II could hold 140kB, but Tandy's (of Fort Worth, Texas,...), oh wonder, exactly met that specification). I really think schools themselves couldn't have cared less than whether a pupil's disk could hold 40k more or not....

On "why did they do that", there's a Steve Jobs quote that describes why they could:

We couldn’t afford that as a company. But we studied the law and it turned out that there was a law already on the books, a national law that said that if you donated a piece of scientific instrumentation or computer to a university for educational and research purposes you can take an extra tax deduction. That basically means you don’t make any money, you lose some but you don’t lose too much. You lose about ten percent. We thought that if we could apply that law, enhance it a little bit to extend it down to K through 8 and remove the research requirements so it was just educational, then we could give a hundred thousand computers away, one to each school in America and it would cost our company ten million dollars which was a lot of money to us at that time but it was less than a hundred million dollars if we didn’t have that. We decided that we were willing to do that.

The "why" is obvious: it's all about market share and the hope that whoever grew up with an Apple computer at school will later buy one for his own home. All computer manufacturers heavily invest into the educational market and lobby intensly to get their products into there.

Another example is the UK program on the BBC Micro-Computer for the computer literacy education. Acorn, Sinclair, and others fought fiercely to get their products in there. The process was a bit different, as the selection was done by the British Broadcasting Corporation (still a public enterprise) and the feeling is that the requirements for the BBC Micro were in fact laid out by a technically-driven rather than politically-driven committee, and the specs were clearly not targetting something that already existed at that point. The BBC could, however, give a prospect of thousands of computers rather than several hundred. But still, sales to schools from (finally) Acorn were rather at cost than with a significant margin.

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    '... it was likely the final requirements would strangely align with Apple's specifications.' Apparently, MECC didn't do that in this case; there was a significant division of opinion between Apple and TRS-80, but Tandy did not offer a proposal that met some requirement. (What requirement? I don't know.)
    – rwallace
    Feb 27 at 13:33
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    'sales to schools from (finally) Acorn were rather at cost' - Do you have a source for that? My understanding is that UK schools did indeed get a discount, but the difference was made up by the government; Acorn got paid the same amount as from any other customer.
    – rwallace
    Feb 27 at 13:34
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    Ad 2) While it may be asked too much from a school council to come up with what effectively boils down to a design process of its own, it may be still interesting what key aspects were appreciated and asked for in the specification. (It probably wouldn't have been about a specific processor, but about capabilities and some existing or emerging standards. E.g., the BBC specifically asked for video text and Intel-type notation.) I guess, this may provide an interesting window into perceived aspects of an emerging technology.
    – masswerk
    Feb 27 at 14:26
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    @masswerk I really think the UK CLP was special in that respect. It was definitly no market evaluation, because it was clear from the BBC specs they weren't looking for anything you could readily buy (at least from a UK manufacturer) at that time. It was a request to the UK industry to engineer such a thing.
    – tofro
    Feb 27 at 14:31
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    @tofro Still, the BBC specification is a good example: They had settled for the Grundy NewBrain and the famous specification emerged, when it became obvious that Grundy couldn't deliver in time. So the subjectively important aspects of this were distilled into a rather neutral set of requirements. (And, as it turns out, while Acorn met these requirements, what became the BBC Micro was quite a different kind of machine.)
    – masswerk
    Feb 27 at 14:37
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Requirements are made to fit

Since we are already somewhat off topic, it may help to add a generic view about a standard procurement process in every bureaucracy, no matter if state, school or company:

  1. The department needing an item writes a requirement
    1. The requirement contains a formal spec of what's needed
  2. Procurement turns those into an offer for tender
  3. Companies try to pitch their product in a tender
  4. One company and product gets selected

While there are slight variations for steps 3 and 4, depending on requiring a commodity or not, the basic workings are always the same. That's why step 1.1 is the important part: Describing as exactly as possible what one wants to one get in the desired product.

In most organisations procurement wants a provider-neutral description so they are free in their task to find the lowest priced product. In public institutions this is mandatory to guarantee a fair treatment of all offers - they may ask other providers to give a tender, even while knowing already that a certain one is intended (think how NASA ordered Artemis).

So, again, it's all about writing the specs. Like wanting

  • an all-in-one unit with
  • BASIC,
  • highres graphics,
  • using a 6502 and
  • the ability to add school hardware.

While there are several possible offers that could meet that in 1978, I'd be quite surprised if an would be able to beat Apple at the price (*1).

So it's the old game about writing specs in a way that one gets an Apple II without including the name.

How It Worked With the MECC

(And back to historic content)

An article by the Smithsonian Magazine about 'The Oregon Trail' seems to describes the sequence:

In 1978, MECC's product development team retooled The Oregon Trail for the color-screen Apple II released a year earlier. [...]

"MECC went to Apple very early on and cut a deal for five Apple II's," says LaFrenz. "We launched The Oregon Trail for proof of concept, tested with Minnesota schools and had a positive evaluation." From there, MECC put out a solicitation for a hardware company to supply the computers. A dozen or so manufacturers answered, among them Radio Shack, IBM, Atari, Commodore and Apple. Apple was an industry lightweight, but Steve Jobs had parallel ideas about computer education.

"[The partnership] worked," LaFrenz says. "MECC became Apple's largest dealer and sold to all the Minnesota schools. MECC and Apple were always in sync, including a grand plan to 'save the world by putting computing power in the hands of every kid in America.' Humility did not run in the veins of Steve [Wozniak] and Steve [Jobs]."

Does quite sound like he standard (user-side) process:

  • Team likes a specific machine
  • Team acquires that machine
  • Makes a demo specific for that machine
  • Demo is well received
  • Running that program is made part of the spec
  • Company making that machine gets the larger order despite being outsider

Of course, there is more to it becoming successful, like good communication and adapting to needs (*2) and so on, but for that MECC order I would.


*1 – Apple had already a volume production set up, so per unit cost excluding investment were low. Lower than anything a company still in ramp-up could do.

*2 – Noteworthy here, that first version of the Bell & Howell Apple, the one without a locked lid, was already available the very same year.

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    Yes, it can work that way, but not always. I've seen the specifications the BBC wrote, three years later, after giving up on Newbury; they were genuinely fair and impartial. The MECC specification was a public document; it would be nice if there was still a copy preserved somewhere. It has been said that a significant faction at MECC actually favored the TRS-80.
    – rwallace
    Feb 27 at 13:48
  • @rwallace It almost always works that way. I've been more than once on both sides of the stick. No matter if 'private' or 'public' customer. The BBC specs were in favour of a newly constructed machine. Something feasible for an expected 5 digit order, but not for 500 units.
    – Raffzahn
    Feb 27 at 13:58
  • Ah, the Smithsonian article is good! I'm still interested in more details on the process, but the outline given there, does indeed support your case.
    – rwallace
    Feb 27 at 14:40
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    @rwallace Like assuming a byte having 8 bits is usually not wrong :)) Then again, considering that, for one, the MECC was operated as an independent agency made up from dedicated people, I would't expect too much of a selection process. Second the MECC wasn't procuring for them self, but operating as provider in their own right, so suggesting Apple IIs to schools was part of how they sold their (Apple II) Software.
    – Raffzahn
    Feb 27 at 14:48
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    @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact Note that the list is intended as an example how it might have looked. Made up while writing. When tasked to write one it may be way more neutal and at the same time specific A2 targeted as that :)) Also, adding the CPU as requirement may depend on software existing and as well on intended hardware development.
    – Raffzahn
    Feb 27 at 15:25

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