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New Classmate PC all about "ecosystem"

We've known for a while that Intel was working a touch-enabled reference design for their new Classmate PCs. It wasn't until I had an opportunity this week to speak with some of the folks working on the project at Intel that I realized just how far this product had come.
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Written by Christopher Dawson on

We've known for a while that Intel was working a touch-enabled reference design for their new Classmate PCs. It wasn't until I had an opportunity this week to speak with some of the folks working on the project at Intel that I realized just how far this product had come.

Launched today at CES, the "Convertible Classmate PC" seems remarkably close to what tablet PCs really should be for education. Tablets always seemed like a great idea for students, but they never took off, largely because of their high cost, limited availability, and limited durability. The convertible Classmate addresses all of these concerns; three OEMs in the US alone (CTL, Equus and M&A in the United States, MDG in Canada, CMS in the United Kingdom, NEC in France, Olidata in Chile, ASI in Australia, and Hanvon in China) are ready to begin shipping these low-cost, durable tablets immediately.

With the new Classmate, Intel is rebranding its efforts in this segment. The "Intel Learning Series" has three major components. Obviously, the hardware is a key component. Both the convertible Classmate and the 2nd-generation "clamshell" Classmate (the more traditional laptop style netbook reviewed extensively in this blog) are expected to "coexist peacefully," serving different niches within the educational sector (and beyond).

When I asked Jeff Galinovsky (Regional Manager for the Intel-powered Classmate PC Ecosystem) why anyone might still choose the clamshell design over the tablet (which, as you'll see, is remarkably cool) he noted a few reasons why they might be appropriate for different users. While the tablet will still be cost-effective, schools and students looking for the lowest cost device will want to choose the clamshell. Similarly, although the tablet is just short of ruggedized, there are plenty of situations in which maximum durability makes the clamshell the best choice. Intel has promised me a review unit as soon as one becomes available after today's launch; we'll see how hard it is to make a case for the clamshell once I get my hands on the tablet.

Interestingly, the Intel Learning Series extends far beyond the hardware. This is one of the reasons that Intel has always excelled in this market, where others have struggled. Another key component is their ethnography research. Intel has spent an extraordinary amount of time analyzing how kids work with computers and with each other, sharing their research results and driving designs based on their findings.

The idea of micromobility (the way that kids are mobile and move/collaborate within a classroom), for example, really pushed Intel towards the tablet design. In the same way, observing the way kids actively used the early Classmates until they reached an activity that required writing or drawing led Intel to determine news ways (like a tablet with touch-optimized software) to maximize utilization of the devices.

Finally, the learning series brings an "ecosystem" of hardware, software, and service providers to develop exciting applications and peripherals for the Classmate PCs. SMART Technologies is one of many vendors to integrate its hardware with the touch capabilities built into the new Classmates. Others have tapped into the accelerometer that allows the device to be rotated to collect physics data in real time in three dimensions. Vernier has optimized its data collection software for touch. You get the idea: Intel has a lot of partners here. These partners have put together "A collection of hardware, software, and services designed specifically for education."

More importantly, when taken together, these elements allow schools to deploy a lab (or many PCs in a 1:1 scenario) of Classmates and suddenly have a turnkey solution that allows students to explore math, science, writing, art, and more with a single, durable computer and an impressive software stack.

As Intel summarizes in their press kit for the CES launch,

Built on Intel® architecture and powered by the Intel® Atom™ processor, these purpose-built netbooks provide an affordable and functional PC to support a wide variety of classroom applications and activities. Designed with students in mind, the classmate PC is small and light enough for a child to easily carry. Equipped with a water-resistant keyboard, the classmate PC is also “backpack friendly” – able to withstand bumping in a backpack and accidental drops by students. In tablet mode, the convertible classmate PC screen has a “palm rejection” feature that is designed to allow the child to write more naturally by resting their palm on the touch screen. It also includes education-oriented software and applications from software and content vendors in the Intel Learning Series.

Now if I can just get one of these into some students' hands, I can give you some real feedback. However, it certainly looks like the educational netbook, 1:1 computing, and Intel's educational efforts are finally coming of age.

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