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Hang Ups

Those of us who wish to retain a healthy scepticism about the role of IT in education visit one of the industry's many trade shows at our peril. It's one thing to question the educational value of a couple of clapped-out BBCs bleeping at the back of a classroom, but not nearly so easy to pooh-pooh when you're confronted with the latest developments in personal computing. I'm now a born-again new-technologist. I've only myself to blame - I risked spending a day in Olympia at Apple Expo 95.

I only went as an excuse to write a couple of derisory paragraphs about the company - and, to be honest, you don't have to be a William Tell of the snide comment to find Apple an easy target. The company is living proof that making a better mousetrap doesn't necessarily have the public beating a path to your door. The Apple operating system is undoubtedly the best that there is, but somehow, in the market place, it contrives to come a hopeless second best to the PC. What's more, the company seems to have hit upon a winning formula for losing money: the more computers it sells, the less profit it makes.

This financial quarter, turnover was increased by 21 per cent - but profits were down by 47 per cent. It's also working on a fiendishly effective way of alienating customers: those who resist the enormous hype to buy a Dos machine, and beat that lonely path to Apple's door clutching their hard-earned, are likely to be told that the latest models simply aren't available - it currently has a backlog of orders amounting to $1billion.

Apple only has a meagre 20 per cent share of the schools' market in England and Wales. It's got something to do with a government policy in the early days of IT in education which encouraged local authorities to opt for Acorn or Research Machines; and to the fact that for a long time, but not now, Apple products were sorely over-priced.

But the real reason, I suspect, is that underlying presumption which permeates every aspect of British education that there can't be gain without pain: that if information technology is really worth doing, it must be difficult to do. The Apple operating system fails dismally to reach these exacting standards because, quite frankly, it's child's play. It isn't merely friendly, it's embarrassingly chummy.

Apple, of course, doesn't support the incredible range of educational software that Acorn and PC users take for granted, but what makes the machine really special is the range of art packages it supports. They weren't created for professional artists - but they are far too good to be wasted on men with pony-tails. I left Apple Expo convinced that with a Power Mac and plenty of spare Ram memory (which means plenty of spare cash), I'd be knocking out complex 3D images, grafting pictures on to them, synchronising the resulting extravaganza to music and squirting it down the Internet - without ever having to read a manual or to find out what MPEG means.

The next opportunity to see what Apple has to offer will be the British Educational and Training Technology Show (BETT 96) at Olympia, London. The other manufacturers will also be there, eager to demonstrate that anything Apple can do, they can do better. Those who nurture a healthy scepticism will, I'm sure, take a note of January 10-13 and make stringent efforts to avoid Olympia on those days.

More details on Bett 96 from EMAP Education, PO Box 231A , Surbiton, Surrey, KT6 4RJ or from the organisers' Internet Web site: http:www.emap.combettFree ticket hotline: 0181 984 7711

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