When I visit my local library I can read newspapers and magazines. There is plenty of space devoted to books, some of which I can take away. All of this is free. Yes, I know that I pay my council tax and somehow the service is paid for, but it is free to me at the point of delivery. It is free no matter how much I use it, how much I read or how much I learn. It is also possible to borrow audio cassettes at 50p for a week and audio CDs for 80p.
So why is it that a more robust and cheaper-to-produce form of sound delivery costs more? Sitting in one corner of the library is a computer with a modem link. The dreaded Internet, a source of limitless knowledge and chaos. If I want to gain access to this digital goldmine, it will cost me Pounds 2. 50 for half an hour and 80p per disc to take my findings away.
Unlike printing and paper reproduction, digital technology is supposed to come with zero-cost replication. If the value of a product is the cost to make the last one, once the development costs are covered this becomes nothing - so, theoretically, software could become free. But to preserve their million-dollar revenue streams companies retain strictly enforced copyright. Both the medium and the message are essential, but which bits are we prepared to pay most for?
There is a push by some large corporations to establish the model that the medium is free and you pay for the message. To access software and information via the Internet we do need some hardware, which schools currently have to buy. Will this change? We all seem to accept, albeit sometimes grudgingly, that we pay for calls on our "free" telephone or that we have to subscribe to a service to watch Premier League soccer.
This model may be fine for a home-entertainment service but the suggestion that you should "pay as you learn" is against the ideal of universal educational entitlement. Access to an education is a right and, for school children at least, basic information should be freely available, copiable and re-useable. The message must be free. If you can get the medium free as well, then good luck.
Software is a form of information and should also be free to schools. Before my colleagues in the educational software publishing industry organise a lynching mob, let me expand on this. A service that is free can also have value. I value my local library and my doctor. Even free services get paid for somewhere.
Software has been continuously undervalued - government schemes focus on the hardware and many schools spend a disproportionate part of their budget on computer equipment with little left for software, support and training (the crucial elements).
Software, whether it is content-rich multimedia or flexible and participative tools, is far more important than the hardware. Computers just happen to be one of the relatively convenient ways of delivering ideas at the moment. The ideas will remain long after the latest Pentium-powered grey boxes become museum items.
The costs of development and distribution have to be found somehow but the Internet can provide a distribution system that is virtually free to the publisher. If development is funded by sponsors, industry or government, developers need only to cover the cost of their creativity.
They do not have to worry about buying 500 manuals and boxes, postage, warehouse costs, order forms or VAT. Many will choose to earn more from the professional version or providing popular support materials in paper or CD-Rom format.
Not all software need be free either. Television uses several payment models. It is paid for by licence fee, advertising, subscription or pay-as-you-view. All these co-exist happily. Most people receive television with no cost for the message, yet the UK has some of the highest quality and best-respected TV production in the world. There is similarly a place for a free software and digital information service to schools.
It has been said that 75 per cent of teachers are not using information technology effectively in the classroom. Something should be done to remove the many barriers that prevent the use of technologies to appropriately support learning.
If providing a free service can help to enhance the effective use of IT across the curriculum, for the large majority of teachers who currently see no benefit in it, we should implement that service now. Will this destroy the world-leading UK educational software industry? Did libraries kill off bookshops?
Mike Collett is chairman of the Educational Software Publishers' Association. Any comments welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org