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Play safe and avoid the plug-and-pray;New Technologies

Do you spend now or wait for the next breakthrough? George Cole warns that too much hesitation could mean your pupils missing out

It's a pity computer manufacturers don't provide an additional item with their products: a crystal ball. Buying equipment means buying into an uncertain future as technology seems to come and go at a frightening speed. A mistake can be multiplied hundreds of times if large numbers of new machines are bought in one go.

The problem with information and communications technology is that some things are over-hyped but never take off, while others seem to creep up unannounced and make a massive impact, such as the Internet.

So what technologies should schools look at and invest in? One important area lies at the back of the computer and the connection sockets it uses. A common joke is that consumer electronics items such as CD players are plug-and-play devices - you plug them in, switch on and go. But computers (and especially PCs) are more plug-and-pray machines - you hope that when all the connections have been made, the thing will work properly. More often than not, it won't.

But a new type of connection is appearing on many of the latest computers, both PCs and Apple Macs, which should make it simpler to add peripherals such as monitors, speakers, printers, scanners and digital cameras to a computer. The Universal Serial Bus (USB) is a new type of connector which uses a small plug and thin connecting cable. On PCs, USB works with Windows 95 and 98. It allows up to 127 devices to be daisy-chained to a single computer socket - in a computer show last November, a PC was linked to 111 different devices.

There are other benefits too, especially for PC users who often have problems adding devices to their machines. Instead of fiddling around with settings, you can simply plug in the device while the computer is running and the computer asks you to install the driver software (which enables it to recognise the device) and I er, that's it. There is no need even to restart the machine.

Apple's iMac computer was one of the first machines to opt for full USB connection. The good news for supporters of such connectors is that more and more peripherals that can connect to it are appearing on the market.

Watch out, too, for the first computers to include smart readers before the end of the year. A plastic smart card, about the size of a credit card, it contains a tiny microchip. A smart card is effectively a tiny computer and they are already being used as telephone cards, supermarket "loyalty" cards and satellite television decoder cards.

But now, Microsoft plans to put smart cards on to the desktop PC. Windows 2000 will include a smart card which can be used in place of a password or PIN code for gaining access to a computer or network. Later on, the Windows smart card will be used for electronic commerce on the Internet, and in hand-held computers. Expect also to see standalone smart-card readers which can be connected to an existing computer.

Flat-screen monitors using plasma or LCD technology are now on the market. Flat-screen monitors use less power and take up less desk space than the traditional "tube" technology, and prices are falling. That said, a flat-screen monitor may cost five or six times more than an equivalent traditional monitor and flat displays often have a narrower viewing angle than normal - which makes them less useful for group work.

Even so, the next 12 to 18 months should see prices fall to the point where it may be worth a school considering buying one or two, especially for classrooms where space is at a premium. Philips has a 15-in screen, priced at pound;730, available from RM.

This year, many new computers will be sporting a DVD-Rom drive. The discs look like CD-Roms but can store between seven and 30 times more data. And, best of all, the drives will also play CD-Rom discs, as well as music CDs.

DVD technology is well worth considering, but it will be some time before it replaces the CD-Rom. What's more, it may be worth buying a CD-recordable or CD-rewritable drive. The former is useful for archiving because once the data is written, it cannot be erased. CD-RW discs can be used and re-used like floppy discs, and hold 500 times more data.

Anyone buying a new inkjet printer should consider buying one with photo-realistic printing, even if they have no plans at this stage to use a digital camera. The price premium is so small and the price of digital cameras is falling so much that it is a good investment for the future. Printers such as Lexmark's 5770, which can bypass the computer for printing, are likely to become more common this year - they are well worth considering.

Expect to see some developments in the portable computer market as computers and mobiles phones continue to converge. Microsoft offers Windows CE, but other groups are planning to offer alternatives. One of these, Symbian, consists of Psion plus mobile phone giants Nokia and Ericsson. Apple is also thought to be developing a product for this market. These companies are planning to launch a new generation of hand-held devices that will be used for telephony, Internet, email and mobile computing. It remains to be seen whether these products will be a success.

The rise of the National Grid for Learning has meant a lot of attention is being paid to network connections. Many schools are opting for ISDN digital links which can carry data at speeds of up to 128,000bps, or bits per second. But BT is testing a technology known as ADSL, which offers data speeds of between 2 and 6 million bits of data per second. The chances are that ADSL will be available commercially at selected digital exchanges around the country later this year. The existing Schools Internet Caller offer, which gives schools internet telephone connections for a fixed annual fee, is only for ISDN, but don't be surprised if a similar offer appears for ADSL.

Should you buy or should you wait? It is the eternal dilemma for all schools. But a golden rule is not to plunge into any technology, but to weigh up the benefits and invest cautiously in the early stages. Wherever possible, buy equipment that is flexible and can be upgraded. One thing is certain: holding back may save you money in the short term, but you will not enjoy the educational benefits.

RM 01235 826000

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