A world on the Windows

29th December 1995 at 00:00
That was the year that was for Bill Gates, but even the humble Acorn came up with a clever new strategy to grab market share. Arnold Evans sums up 12 months of innovation

Bill Gates - that Harry Ramsden of the silicon chip - liked the year so much that he included it in the name of what could well prove to be the biggest of his big moneyspinners. The launch of Windows 95 had the copywriters foaming at the mouth ("First fire, then the wheel - now this") but it was remarkable to find that the newspapers expected the rest of us to take it as seriously.

It filled almost as many column inches as OJ's glove, a water chief's abstention from bathing, a prelate's grey area, and the great Blur-Oasis debate.

Indeed, The Times devoted an entire supplement to it, as part of a free issue paid for by Microsoft - not even Elizabeth Hurley has commanded that much attention. Yet, in all the ballyhoo, it was sometimes an effort to remember that Windows 95 didn't actually do anything. It was only a graphical interface - a way of making the PC almost as easy to operate as the Mac. But it wasn't the quality of the software that the great British public were being asked to acknowledge, but the inescapable truth that the Information Age had now officially arrived; that the future belonged to the computer literate; that the geek shall inherit the Earth.

Of course, there were dissenting voices. The Unabomber, an American terrorist, blackmailed the Washington Post into publishing his 35,000-word tirade against mankind's torrid love affair with the new technology. Here, the religious sect, the Exclusive Brethren, objected to children being "corrupted by computers" in school, and the Archbishop of York warned against "the devilish influence of the Internet".

Then there were the usual lurid stories about the filth available on the Pornonet. An academic at Nottingham Trent University revealed that surfing the Internet could be as addictive as gambling or alcohol and that "we could see it emerging as grounds for adultery". Those custodians of decency, the Hollywood moguls, were issuing dire warnings of what lay in store with movies such as The Net and Johnny Mnemonic.

Experiments in teleshopping, teleworking and video-conferencing, together with the promise that the new technologies would soon converge in a single super machine that would save us from the inconvenience of ever having to interact with humans, sent shivers down our spines. It was easier than ever to catch a glimpse of a future in which our horizons wouldn't stretch beyond the corners of a VDU. It wasn't the aliens from outer space we should fear but the alienation of cyberspace.

If we had really believed the doom-mongers, computers in 1995 would have been about as popular as mad cows. But we didn't. Instead, the nation's mums and dads (or at least the well-heeled ones) swotted up on megabytes, mips and megahertz and rushed into the high street to buy a home computer. Surveys revealed that owning one came higher on many parents' wish list than holidays abroad or a satellite dish - and that the majority wanted one because they were convinced it would help their children's education.

Even as the headlines - thanks to Mr Chris Woodhead and sundry other bovver boys - told parents that schools were failing, the glossy advertisements were assuring them that a growing list of edutainment titles had found the magic formula that cleverly blended endless fun with good old-fashioned learning.

Sales of hardware in 1995 were so phenomenal that chip manufacturers couldn't keep up with demand. Precious Ram chips commanded absurd prices on the black market. Indeed the thief who took Fergie's necklace would probably have done better if he'd nicked a paparazzo's laptop. Police forces throughout the UK reported a dramatic rise in computer theft. Schools and colleges began to recognise that perhaps the best IT investment they could make was in indelible marker pens, desk clamps and alarm systems.

However, many teachers wouldn't shed many tears to discover that the school's entire stock of hardware had found its way into some felon's swag bag. An OFSTED report noted that 66 per cent of secondary teachers and 44 per cent of those in primary schools don't use computers regularly in their lessons. It's a peculiarly depressing statistic in the year that saw the launch of a new national curriculum which, despite the slimming down, emphasised the fundamental importance of IT.

It was the year, too, in which Birmingham played host to the 1,200 delegates at the World Conference for Computers in Education where speaker after speaker confirmed that the new technology was heralding a revolution in the way children could be taught.

It was a year in which a plethora of new multimedia titles - notably Dorling Kindersley's versions of its children's reference books - should have been enough to convince teachers of the unique opportunities offered by IT. And if teachers weren't interested, pupils - especially the under-achievers - certainly were.

Researchers at Keele University found that two-thirds of pupils who found school "totally boring" were enthusiastic about IT. It was vital that they should be, according to industrialists and politicians who pronounced that the country's salvation depended on schools being able to create a computer-literate workforce.

Of course, that's easier said than done when teachers lack the time, the training and the hardware. Government figures published in 1995 revealed there was a computer for every 10 children in secondary school, and one for every 18 primary pupils. But the survey also revealed that half of all primary equipment, and a third of that in secondary schools is more than five years old. In the fast-moving world of IT, that makes it positively state-of-the-ark.

There was little schools could do to remedy the situation. In a year of draconian cutbacks, they had trouble enough finding the money to replace broken windows, let alone upgrading their Windows. Parents, as usual, helped with the endless round of fund-raising events, trips to Tesco's (for Acorn fanciers) and - for the first time this year - Sainsbury's (for ICLs). Schools formed alliances with big business. Notably, five secondaries in Liverpool, which offered their premises in the evenings to a local company in exchange for Pounds 500,000 of multimedia equipment.

As the schools struggled, the politicians busied themselves in a frenetic round of who could promise the most. The Department for Education and Employment lobbed Pounds 5 million at primary schools to buy multimedia equipment and launched its ambitious Superhighways for Education programme, while the Department for Trade and Industry went its own sweet way with Schools Online, a series of projects costing Pounds 10 million (sponsored by industry), aimed at promoting use of the Internet.

Tony Blair, with a pledge to give every pupil a laptop, cleverly set about equating New Labour with new technology. BT promised him they'd bring the superhighway to every school and, in exchange, he promised BT a licence to print money.

But schools couldn't wait for BT and that glorious day late in the next decade when the superhighway will be officially opened by Queen Camilla. Instead, schools that could afford it crowded on to the Internet. A few with ISDN lines are already able to offer pupils unlimited access, but most are having to make do with a modem and telephone line. They can choose from dozens of gateways on to the Internet, but most opt for Campus World (the successor to Campus 2000) and RM's Internet for Learning service which went from strength to strength and even won the blessing of Acorn and Apple.

Hundreds of schools (many, courtesy of RM) now have their own World Wide Web sites giving them the same status - at least in the strange world of cyberspace - as 10 Downing Street, NASA and fans of Snoop Doggy Dog. Every week saw the arrival of a clutch of new educationally oriented WWW sites - everything from the British Museum's Magna Carta to OFSTED's school reports.

Teachers who were perplexed as to which operating system to buy in order to access this wealth of information were relieved to find that, in 1995, making the right decision mattered far less. Several networking systems came on the market which could accommodate Apple, Acorn and PC.

What's more, Apple and Acorn launched machines which they promised were PC-compatible. Acorn went one step further: after a traumatic reorganisation, it emerged with a new marketing strategy that includes selling PCs alongside its own machines.

It might seem like a serious set-back for Acorn, but the company could still have the last laugh. It is putting its faith in an ingenious box of tricks which plugs into the back of an ordinary television, and offers many of the features of the computer - including access to the Internet - without any of the hassle. Cheap and easy to use, it is exactly the sort of product that has had the pundits, throughout 1995, predicting the imminent demise of the personal computer.

That's a happy New Year's thought - at least for 66 per cent of secondary teachers and 44 per cent of those in primary schools.

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