Netheads have long dreamt of a world of free Internet service providers, together with free local calls, as in America. A few months ago, Dixons obliged with Freeserve which, within just two months, had attracted 475,000 subscribers,placing it just 25,000 behind the British market leader, AOL, and ahead of CompuServe.
That is one gap in the market plugged, but those in the education sector can now see clearly what could have been done for schools with the necessary imagination and comitment. Dixons and the growing number of other free Internet providershas increased the pressure on the established Internet service providers to cut costs.
Access and subscription prices will also be an important subtext at the BETT'99 technology show. Costs for schools could be driven lower, and this would reduce the anxiety about how schools can afford to maintain their systems once their learning grid funding is no more.
The main text, however, will be the Government's Open for Learning, Open for Business document which, perhaps unsurprisingly, has little to say about online costs - a factor that could take the shine off achievements elsewhere. But it does lay out the Government's strategy.
BT is expected to make an announcement about a new high-speed service. Early indications are, however, that this is unlikely to be the breakthrough schools are looking for. And though there has been some movement in terms of improved access - the Technology Colleges Trust has agreed an attractive deal with NTL, a cable company, for a broadband network - this does not provide a model for a national solution. Cheap high-speed Internet access looks as far away as ever.
Open for Learning, Open for Business will set the agenda for at least the next five years, and probably beyond. As it makes clear, the British Educational Communications Agency (BECTA) will be responsible for much of the Grid. And after a slow start, the Virtual Teachers' Centre is beginning to look more useful.
Elsewhere, the setting up of AngliaCampus Ltd, a joint venture by BT's CampusWorld and Anglia Multimedia, is interesting. The new company will take the joint content and reprice and repackage the material. "Campus was always good at the interactive side and Anglia with reference-type material," says Don Tricker of BT. "Putting them together is a logical step."
It is good to find something that is free and of quality. The Star Tower game, with its charming Orderly Owl, can be downloaded from Xemplar's website. It is an example of the kind of simple, invaluable programs that were once so popular and are now probably too simple to sell. This can be used online or can be downloaded and used on any machine with a browser.
Created by veteran software developer Mike Matson, they are ingenious in their simplicity. If anything justifies the learning grid it is this kind of resource. Try using Unit the Robot, which is probably a good way into control technology.
Another free site is Argosphere, the website of Argo Interactive, the company which is probably the originator of this kind of approach. If you don't know the site then you are missing something. It is full of quality, downloadable primary school resources. How long Argosphere can continue to afford developing such free products is open to question.
RITING for the Internet or for a school intranet (network with web-style pages) will be a growth area and we are bound to see some startling developments over the next couple of years. For primary schools, Textease for PC, Mac or Acorn now has a free copy of the HTML ReaderWriter, which allows users to convert documents into web-pages. The addition of video, sound and animation, as well as links to other documents, make it possible to bring life, movement and colour together to create eye-catching multimedia presentations. Users can add video to Textease documents simply by dragging and dropping the video into place on the page.
HotDog Junior is a new web-authoring and publishing package imported by RM from Australia and reversioned. It simplifies the creation of web-pages. Indeed, it's hard to think of anything simpler.
Most significant from RM is its decision to make it highly successful Window Box software available on the Net. This trend has already started in the commercial world and RM is leading the way. It is expected to demonstrate it at BETT'99.
RM is also launching a new version of Living Library, which has been designed to make navigation and searching of the library reference content as easy as possible. The inclusion of new clip art will increase its attractiveness.
"Turning information into understanding" is the phrase that Encyclopaedia Britannica uses. Britannica believes its reference work is the most authoritative and comprehensive. While it lacks some of the attractive features of its rivals, its depth compensates. In addition to the CD there is Britannica Online, a subscription information service which offers easy access to Britannica, in addition to interactivity and audiovideo clips with thousands of Internet-related links. The most useful feature for schools is the way that current news is put into context.
History Online is an Internet subscription service produced for the Historical Association and the British Library. It includes data files, simulations, professional development materials, teacher's guides, lesson plans, ICT guidance, articles and reviews.
Schools Direct will launch its new product, WOL, an Internet service to schools that allows teachers to view, select and print out photographic worksheets from a library of more than 3,000 for only 25p each. Another service for teachers will be a free website offering materials from Questions Publishing.
The excitement about the National Grid for Learning and the Internet is gathering momentum, so it would be a tragedy if concerns about online costs put the brakes on. According to Open for Learning: Open for Business BECTA and phone watchdog Oftel should target the reduction of call charges.
* BETT CONNECTIONS
Anglia Multimedia stand F44 01603 615 151 www.anglia.co.uk
Argo Interactive stand M7001234 815 815 www.argonet.co.uk
BECTA stand D72 01203 416 994 www.becta.org.uk
BT Education stand D40 0171 356 5677 www.bt.comworldeducation
DFEE stand C80 0171 273 3000 www.dfee.gov.uk
Ordnance Survey stand E82 08456 050505 www.ordsvy.gov.ukeducate.htm
lRM stand D50 01235 826000 www.rmplcl
Xemplar stand E34 01223 724724 www.xemplar.co.uk
Schools Direct stand SW1