EAST MANATEE -- It wasn't that long ago when a school computer cart consisted of a desk with wheels that held a computer, monitor, keyboard and surge protector. If more than one of them could be found in a classroom, the school was doing pretty well on the technology front.
Today, "mobile computing" is a more portable proposition. Laptop computers, net books and tablets are all used as teaching aids and, in some cases, need to be ready for every student in every class period every school day.
So, how does a school keep 30 portable computers, ready to go, without creating a spider web of power cords and leaving devices vulnerable to theft? Think tablet cart.
The concept isn't new. Build a wheeled cabinet with a bunch of slots or drawers for computers, hook the computer chargers into some power strips on the back, then plug it in and roll it around.
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An East Manatee tablet cart manufacturer, JAR Systems, has taken the concept further. The company's carts come with charging systems that avoid overcharging batteries, and include network cabling that make software updates and maintenance a simple task. That simplicity has made the carts a hot commodity, prompting JAR to add employees this year. It is also in discussions to bring its overseas manufacturing to the Manatee-Sarasota area.
These add-ons make perfect sense now. But while working for Hewlett Packard in Germany 11 years ago, JAR CEO Axel Zimmermann saw some of the first such carts come on the market offering little more than storage slots for laptops.
He knew he could do better with his own company.
"People were selling these pieces of furniture for the longest time," he said. "It doesn't help you if the cart makes it around the building if the device doesn't charge."
Seeing the United States as a wide-open market, Zimmermann and two partners self-funded the startup company in Bradenton. Now headquartered in 4,000 square feet of nondescript office space at 10530 Portal Crossing, JAR Systems is in a competitive, growing market as schools digitize their curricula. The company's 11 employees handle sales and product design out of the local office.
Sixty percent of the company's manufacturing is done in China, while the remainder is done in the United States. Distribution is handled out of warehouses in Texas, California and Maryland.
Ranging from a small, 85-pound tablet carrier to rolling cabinets that can hold an entire classroom of 17-inch laptops, the JAR carts are designed to keep school-owned, portable technology ready for use and safe from theft and damage. It's a concept that has drawn customers around the nation. Ninety percent of JAR's cabinets sell to schools, libraries and other educational institutions. The remainder are purchased by business, particularly in the health care and restaurant sectors.
The company has found some of its best sales success in Texas, Wisconsin, California and North Carolina.
In Florida, clients include Florida State University, Hardee County School District and St. Johns County School District. Jessica McQuaig, an information technology administrator with the St. Johns schools, said her district purchased about 20 of the JAR carts in January to use in a pilot digital school. While the district is still deciding whether to keep its portable computing devices at school or to send them home with students at night, McQuaig said the JAR carts stand up to student use and keep devices running.
"You get what you pay for," she said of the carts that cost $2,750 each.
Louis Brooks, an information technologist with FSU's library system, said the six carts the university bought a year ago for its laptop loan program were chosen for their versatility. They accommodate any type of mobile computing device, he said, and their network connections make it easy to update 160 computers at once.
"We used to have to bring all the laptops down and update them one at a time," Brooks said.
Selling for $1,000 to $3,500 each, the JAR carts are marketed on durability and user friendliness. Rolling steel doors open wide to allow a class full of students to plug and rack computers as they rush to beat the dismissal bell. To get the computers ready for the next class as quickly as possible, the cart's "intelligent" charging system determines how much juice each device needs, and lets users know whether the devices are ready to use.
Zimmermann said a reliable charging system expands the possibilities for mobile computing in schools.
Zimmermann said the key to his company's continued success is accommodating future trends in mobile computing. JAR does its circuit board manufacturing in Orlando to speed upgrades to its charging systems.
The company has plans to launch a line of charging systems that can be adapted to tablet carts sold by competitors. JAR is currently in talks to bring this manufacturing and some of its cart construction to the Manatee-Sarasota area.
The company expects to hire up to five new employees this year.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.