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New platform departures

Jack Kenny reports on the latest attempt by Xemplar to halt the move towards PCs. Let's face it: Xemplar is attempting to pull off one of the most difficult tricks in computer history. Supporting two computer platforms both noted for innovative approaches (Apple Macintosh and Acorn) and both with question marks over them is not easy.

For onlookers it is fascinating, like watching a very high wire act in a cyclone. But for a teacher with a limited budget and decisions to make, it is just agonising. Nor has it been helped by the success of Research Machines in taking a relatively poor operating system and making it acceptable in its Window Box package.

Looking ahead a couple of years - and that is all it is safe to do - it is difficult to see the move of schools towards the PC platforms being halted. Beyond that who knows?

The new Xemplar offerings are being put out confidently and aggressively. The obvious target is the successful RM Window Box. Xemplar claims that its own Toolbox concept will be more flexible, harder to upset and easier to manage.

It also claims that it is networkable, that the Toolbox is a machine with software designed for education, not industry.

The new turnkey system will be welcomed, and it is all underpinned with documentation that relates precisely to the preoccupations of teachers in Scotland and England.

For the primary area there is the Junior Toolbox. Unlike the secondary machines built around the RISC PC, this is an Acorn A7000 computer, a cheaper solution for primary schools. Xemplar has aimed at "turn it on and use it" friendliness. The software (Talking Textease, Retreeval, Splosh+, Spex+, Datasheet 2, Banner, Gallery, Tablemate, Portfolio, Music Box, Screen Turtle, Image FS2 and four Anglia CD-Roms) is installed on the hard disc and there is a training voucher, all for Pounds 1,395.

The secondary Toolboxes are targeted at curriculum areas: design and technology, mathematics, science, English, geography. For example, there are Toolboxes for both Apple Macintosh and Acorn under the subject heading of English (Scottish level P7-S2 or English key stage 3). The Acorn box has Datapower, Eureka 3, Impression Style, Hyperstudio and Xemplar Toolbox resources. The Apple Macintosh box has ClarisWorks Secondary Templates and presumably ClarisWorks, SCET's Writers' Toolkit, Hyperstudio and the Xemplar English Toolbox Resources.

The Apple Macintosh machine is a Performa 5400, the Acorn a RISC PC 700; both cost Pounds 1,499. If you already have a machine and wish to buy the software for English, for Apple Macintosh it is Pounds 225, for Acorn Pounds 449. Undoubtedly, for this pack, the Acorn user comes off best. I was disturbed to see that the ClarisWorks templates were the same ones that were poorly reviewed when they first came out.

Another development is the resource packs. These are collections of (usually) CD-Roms to target a particular age group. In the pre-school pack, which is exclusively Apple Macintosh, there are three CD-Roms, story books and a couple of audio cassettes. If you buy these at the same time as an Apple Macintosh, you save Pounds 14.

One reason for the Acorn platform being under a cloud was the fact that so few CD-Roms were available, but that situation has improved. Some of the Dorling Kindersley discs are now available for Acorn, although at a higher price than Windows or Apple Macintosh versions. Some traditional Acorn software houses have started to supply CDs.

The Pocket Book handheld computer is one of Acorn's success stories and is an important part of its current offering. It is compatible with all three platforms, is a real computer, genuinely portable and inexpensive. Xemplar is clear that these small machines can make an enormous contribution to the curriculum and will help to make information technology accessible to many more pupils.

Buying a number of them (only Pounds 195 each) can open up IT in the classroom. The machine with upgrades is central to Xemplar's offerings for control and sensing.

The most immediate problem is for Xemplar to hold on to its existing markets. The long-term aim must be to begin to persuade schools that there is a future.

* Apple Computer UK Stand 48Xemplar Education Ltd Stand 18

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