A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.
There’s been a lot in the news lately about kids trying to embrace the weird world of remote learning.
The problem is that the technology, while it’s ready to handle such use cases, isn’t as accessible on a universal scale as it needs to be.
To put it another way: Many school districts, due to budget considerations, still do not give away laptops or tablets to every student in the way that most employers give their employees a laptop (or possibly even a phone). We may believe the children are our future, but good luck getting someone to put in a down payment on a decent computer during a pandemic.
The truth is, though, that this has always been a challenge. The pandemic simply puts it into sharp relief.
Back in 2005, another strange situation put this into sharp relief—although that situation was a bit more manmade.
Let’s go back to the time a school district decided to sell its old iBooks for $50, and the havoc that decision wrought.
The number of iBooks that Apple supplied to Henrico County, Virginia in 2001, in two separate shipments—one for high schoolers and one for middle schoolers. The plan, which was timed to the 2001 announcement of the white polycarbonate iBook G3 “Snow,” reflected how the county school district, outside of Richmond, was ahead of its time on technology, having purchased the proverbial “laptop for every student” at a time when computers in the classroom for most meant having a well-stocked computer lab. “This is the mammoth–the single largest sale of portable computers in education ever,” Steve Jobs said in a news release at the time. (That said, it does appear that many of the laptops Henrico County received were of the older first-gen iBook style, akin to the original iMac.)
How Henrico County became an iBook innovator before it became a weird footnote
There are two stories about the Henrico County, Virginia school district worth discussing in the context of computing history: The fact that the school may have been one in the first in the country to give a laptop to nearly every student, and what happened to those laptops after the district decided to upgrade.
The first is a story about a forward-thinking district leveraging its largesse for the purposes of equipping its student body for the future. The second, unfortunately, kind of has a Lord of the Flies-type vibe.
Let’s spend a little time talking about the first part, because it really was an innovative program. In 2001, Henrico County entered into a lease-to-own program with Apple, at a cost of $18.5 million, to supply an entire district with laptops. Dr. Mark Edwards, the superintendent of the Henrico County School District, spoke positively of the program when it was first launched.
“The iBook is going to change education in terms of how we teach and learn,” Edwards said in a promotional video for the second-generation iBook. “It’s a tool for collaboration; it’s a tool for invention, for exploration. With that, we developed a vibrant learning community where everyone is a learner and everyone is a teacher.”
The Apple deal had ripple effects—other nearby schools, such as Lindsay Middle School further down Interstate 64 in Hampton, Virginia, also started experimenting with laptops around this time, and other districts across the country started using laptops at slightly smaller scales. Apple’s long-standing push toward education, which helped keep the company afloat even during lean years, seemed like it was getting a few successful hits thanks to the iBook.
(Heck, Apple even developed its own specialized cart for holding the laptops when they were not in use, for schools that didn’t want students to take them home.)
But being an educational setting, there were (of course!) hiccups in Henrico County. While the program drew positive initial headlines, it gained its first hint of notoriety after 50 to 60 students were caught downloading porn on their machines—which (of course!) led to news coverage. One concerned parent let his opinion on the laptops be known.
“We have given them adult equipment—tools,” he said in comments to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We have given them to kids who are using them as toys. We’re passing it down the line to kids who aren’t quite ready to use it and they’re going ape.”
And students were attempting to hack into the school district’s systems to change grades.
But Henrico County was willing to correct mistakes as needed. The wired network, which the teachers largely used, was separated from the wireless one that the students did. And in a 2002 article about the laptop program, Henrico schools technology director Mike Smith noted that the district had pretty good content filtering—an upgraded version that was 95 to 98 percent effective. He was a realist about the other 2 to 5 percent.
“The porn industry wants to get to children,” he told the Associated Press in 2002. “As long as that’s the case, you’re never going to be able to block 100 percent of it.”
All in all, pretty much what you would expect for the launch of a laptop program for classrooms in 2001.
The amount that Dell reportedly undercut Apple in a successful bid in 2005 to win the laptop contract for high-school students that Apple had earned for the iBook sale in 2001. (The middle-school contract largely stayed in place.) While the county said it valued its relationship with Apple, that deal was expensive to keep—and by the time the district started working with Dell, it had spent $43.6 million with Apple over four years.
The day that Henrico County’s wide-scale iBook experiment turned ugly
When it comes to computers in highly organized contexts like education or business, there’s a constant need to upgrade. Generally, the cycle is around three years, maybe longer if your budget is tight.
With Henrico County, the cycle was about four years. I know this because of the strange situation that happened at the Richmond International Raceway on August 16, 2005. On that day, the county held a surplus sale in which the district sold these laptops, which originally went for around $1,400 new, for the bargain-basement price of $50.
The news stories, which got significantly more international press than the original agreement between Henrico County and Apple did, implied that desperation was driving the people trying to get these computers. People got trampled. Some needed medical care. Someone lost their sandal during the melee. One person wet themselves while waiting in line.
But these were $50 wireless-enabled computers at a time when, if you went to the Apple Store, $49 could buy you a mouse. For many families without access to technology, the value proposition spoke for itself.
Still, these laptops were fairly out of date at the time, but not to the point of uselessness. While you could get online with them, they would likely be quite pokey with the latest version of Mac OS X at the time, 10.4 Tiger. And they were soon to be made completely obsolete by the transition away from PowerPC announced two months prior.
And again, these were laptops used by high schoolers in all states of disarray. This may have been the most expensive thing a young teen ever owned, and odds are high that they’re going to break it. If a kid got a hold of a lighter and used it to melt down some of the plastic, or decided to draw on the back with a permanent marker, all that stuff was still there.
But they were computers, and they worked. And for some people, that’s all that mattered.
Now, surplus programs are generally not promoted very much, are low-key affairs, and are ways to get a computer on the cheap.
But that’s not what happened in Richmond. It was announced publicly, including on the school district’s website, and promoted to the media. A passage from the announcement:
A unique opportunity is available from Henrico County Public Schools. Used Apple iBook laptop computers will be on sale for $50 each, with a one-per-person limit. The one-day sale will be held Tuesday, Aug. 9 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
One thousand laptops will be sold at the school warehouse—361 Dabbs House Road beside the Eastern Government Center—on a first-come, first-serve basis. Only cash or checks will be accepted.
The white, Power PC 750s with 12-inch screens have 320 megabytes of memory, Mac OS 10.2.8, and AppleWorks 6.2.9.
The public announcement that the district was getting rid of a thousand iBooks created a frenzy, one that spread far beyond the school district’s borders and hit the international news. For one thing, Apple blogs drew attention to the event, and Apple fans are crazy, so many of them legitimately discussed traveling long distances to get a $50 laptop.
While the school district managed the devices while they were still in the classroom, the Henrico County government handled their sale and disposal, and did so in a fairly haphazard way.
Case in point on this issue: A quote from a guy who was beating people with a lawn chair in an effort to protect his spot in line.
“I took my chair here and threw it over my shoulder and I went, ‘Bam,’” the guy said. “They were getting in front of me, and I was there a lot earlier than them, so I thought that it was just.”
(That quote was enough to draw the attention of famed Microsoft blogger Raymond Chen, who deadpanned of the man’s claim, “That’s one of the guiding principles this country was founded on.”)
If anything, the overwhelmed reaction to the iBooks reflected something basic: While Henrico County did its students a lot of good by purchasing these laptops, and put in a lot of work to acquire them and run its program, the program did not go far enough. The school district spent tens of millions of dollars on these machines, and when they were spent, the district tried to extend their life in the most haphazard way possible.
The district didn’t even bother to limit the sale to county residents until it started getting attention on Apple blogs. And by then, the buzz around the selloff all but guaranteed a bad result.
Looking at it now, the tragedy of the situation is much more clear: There were lots of people in its community that could use these machines, and even selling them for cheap left people out. A quote from Paul Proto, the director of general services for Henrico County, seemed telling to a degree, a general misunderstanding of the situation.
“It's rather strange that we would have such a tremendous response for the purchase of a laptop computer—and laptop computers that probably have less-than-desirable attributes,” Proto said to the Associated Press. “But I think that people tend to get caught up in the excitement of the event—it almost has an entertainment value.”
Yes, that is probably the most common, least charitable interpretation of what happened that day. But on the other hand, what if that value was handed off to people who needed it the right way, say, through a nonprofit like Goodwill?
This was the age before the smartphone, when real internet access required a computer. I imagine some of these people just wanted a way to get online, or at the very least, an extra machine to tinker with or hand off to their kids.
One has to wonder if we are too quick to throw off good technology just because it’s outdated.
The approximate value that the iBook G3 devices sold by Henrico County kept over four years, based on their $1,299 list price in 2001 and $50 selling price in 2005. (One presumes that Apple gave the school district a discount.) That means that someone who started high school in Henrico County in 2001 saw the laptop that got them through four years of school lose 96 percent of its value through normal use. Can you imagine an equivalent device depreciating at the same rate today?
We’re 15 years past the Henrico County stampede, with a bigger need for older devices than ever. And we’re struggling to manage them correctly
Part of the reason I found myself reflecting on this story was a discussion I had with a Twitter pal of mine, John Bumstead, a recycler and reseller who specializes in old Apple equipment through his company RDKL, Inc.
Bumstead often sees old machines like vintage iBooks and MacBooks pass through his purview, many of which are good enough to reuse. But for many recyclers, there is often a cost/benefit equation at play. The way he put it to me involved electric drills getting taken to iBooks. At some point, the value equation may mean even working machines find their way to the scrap heap—because its raw materials are worth more than the machine itself.
“Recyclers have the unenviable task of deciding the fate of millions of devices—scrap it, or if it’s valuable enough as what it is (a usable computer), sell it to those who would repair/refurbish,” he explained in an interview. “A laptop has about a $10 scrap value, meaning if its parts are broken down (plastic, board, screen, battery, metal), the material can be sold for about $10.”
Perhaps the saddest examples, at least on the Apple side, are the “cloud-locked” machines, which are otherwise perfectly functional but made useless by anti-theft functions contained in iCloud. Many customers get rid of their devices without turning off this functionality, and the result is that phones, iPads, even modern laptops are of no resale value beyond the worth of their metal.
During normal times, stuff like this is already bad enough. But we’re facing a historic need for computers—particularly those just powerful enough to get a 7-year-old through a virtual learning session while working remote. And computing disparities can remove learning gains. While many schools have options like Chromebooks and iPads available, many others do not.
Bumstead notes that, as a non-certified refurbisher, he’s often not put up against the more stringent standards for certification. While it limits his access to machines from more traditional supply chains, in a way, this has put him in an unusual situation where he ends up taking the machines deemed not good enough for other recyclers—often polycarbonate MacBooks that can still access the modern Internet and still work just fine with a little TLC, but are more than a decade past their sell-by date. (The video above explains his POV on this situation.)
“I’ve sold hundreds in the last few months to people using them for school. And the irony is that they came from schools, were retired to recyclers, became half-destroyed in the process … then I pieced them back together and sold them back into circulation for students of the schools to use,” he said. “It begs the question: Why didn’t the schools just continue using them? Or better yet, why didn’t they give them to students directly?”
As for the reaction Henrico County saw for its iBooks in 2005? Bumstead gets it, based on what he sees in the modern day. For many buying these machines, the need for technology often outpaces their knowledge of what makes a good gadget for their given situation. While the technically inclined might find value in the dumpster, expectations need to be set when it comes to things like laptops with working webcams and functional Wi-Fi.
“People simply don’t know what they are buying; they are simply mesmerized by the Apple symbol,” he said. “And unfortunately at a time like this, that probably leads to them getting ripped off.”
I don’t talk about this much, but there was a brief period of my adult life where I didn’t have a working home computer. It was maybe about four or five months.
And the reason that it happened comes down to a known GPU fault in the iBook G4 I had at the time. The problem hit during the worst possible time: In early 2006, amid a transition period of my life, after I had left a bad roommate situation. I was broke, and I had recently moved halfway across the country, so I got rid of a bunch of stuff before I left town, including my old desktops. Student loan bills were starting to really hit for the first time. And while I had a good job in newspapers, it was simply going to take some time to raise the money I needed to replace the dang thing.
If I had technical knowledge at the time, I perhaps could have fixed it. But the laptop was second-hand and didn’t have AppleCare, and I was hundreds of miles from the nearest Apple Store. So, instead, I kind of had to live without it. I stayed longer hours at work to handle computing-related things, and went home, and just watched Stephen Colbert and the series finale of Arrested Development. (Which, famously, ran against the Winter Olympics.)
And because I was a sucker, when I finally saved up enough money, I bought the exact same machine—this time, however, with AppleCare.
I’m sure I joked about the iBook riots online in 2005. Heck, everyone did. Had this happened when Twitter was around, it potentially could have been a far bigger pop-culture moment than the footnote it became.
But I kind of look back at this time, knowing what I know about disparities and access, and I wonder if Henrico County—despite being visionaries around the role of technology in classrooms—realized after the fact how raw a deal it was giving to those in its community who were living without home access to modern technology.
It could have been a great moment. Instead, it was a disaster.