Windows-based computers dominate the market. The result is tension in schools using other platforms. George Cole reports
Cock-up or conspiracy? It's a question some schools are asking as the educational world seems to be moving inexorably towards Microsoft Windows for all its computers. Apple and Acorn users are wondering whether they are in danger of being forgotten as the PC juggernaut speeds up.
Love it or hate it, you cannot ignore the PC. Walk into virtually any high street computer store these days and you'll find that nearly all the machines on sale are PCs, and that Apple hardware and software is hard to find. But the situation is different in education.
Many educational software companies continue to support Acorn and Apple. The last published survey of schools technology (in March 1997) found that 58 per cent of primary schools used Acorn machines, compared with 32 per cent for PCRM computers, and 5 per cent Apple machines. In the secondary sector, the figures were, 35 per cent, 52 per cent and 8 per cent respectively. The figures are bound to have changed since the Department for Education conducted the survey, but even if half of the primary schools using Acorn computers have gone over to the PC (an unlikely scenario), that still means that over one quarter of all primaries in England have Acorns. It's also worth bearing in mind that the proportion of schools in Scotland and Northern Ireland using Apple Macs is much higher than the country-wide average.
"There's an assumption that the PC is the standard, but it clearly isn't, " says Nick Evans, Xemplar's head of marketing. "There are many people who want to stick with Acorn or Apple, and they could become disenfranchised if this is forgotten."
Several recent developments appear to confirm this view. The department's Multimedia for Portables scheme spent Pounds 23 million on laptops, but not one single machine was an Apple or Acorn computer. The British Education and Communications Technology Agency (BECTA), which is managing the scheme, denies that there is any hidden agenda, but the move has surprised many.
There have been reports that some of the material on the new Virtual Teachers Centre website (set up to support the National Grid for Learning, and also managed by Becta) is only available in the form of Microsoft Word files and Zip files (the latter is a compressed PC file). In fairness to the agency, when I examined the teachers' centre site, I could not find any examples of these.
Andre Wagstaff, the man at Becta responsible for grid liaison, says: "There has been no conscious effort to promote a particular platform. We could only put on to the site what we had to hand. It's too early to start throwing bricks at us, as the VTC is still in the prototype stage. If people have material in Apple or Acorn files, they could share them with us."
But the organisers of UK NetYear, the organisation set up to promote schools' access to the Internet, acknowledge that Acorn users have been left behind. The NetYear CD-Rom provided to schools can only be read by Apple and PC computers and not Acorn machines - an extraordinary development, when much effort is being made to get primary schools online.
Claire Lilley, UK Netyear's communications manager, says: "For various reasons it was difficult to get the CD-Rom out with Acorn files. We plan to rectify this in the next release. The disk also came with printed material, which contained a lot of the information on the CD-Rom." She adds that the UK NetYear website can be read by Acorn browsers (software used for exploring the Internet): "Acorn users can access our website. We test it for all three platforms and continue to avoid certain products because we know Acorns will not be able to use them."
The UK NetYear site avoids using frames (mini-pages within Web pages) and Java, software that allows computers to run programs called applets.
A number of companies, including Sherston, Tag and Anglia Multimedia, regularly produce multi-platform software that will run on more than one type of computer. Anglia's website also avoids features that are not compatible with Acorn browsers. Peter Stibbons, the company's director of development says: "We will continue to support all three platforms for the foreseeable future. "
Anglia is launching a multimedia development tool run on a PC, but which can also be used to produce software for Acorn and Apple machines. However, the company plans to launch a sophisticated Atlas CD-Rom for secondary schools, available only for PCs. "It's a high-end product and we couldn't warrant doing it for Acorn and Apple Mac too," says Stibbons. He believes there is an unstoppable move towards the PC. He says: "In five years' time, Acorn machines will be thin on the ground and I can't see Apple growing substantially either."
Julian Pixton, managing director of Logotron, which creates software for the PC and Acorn platforms, agrees: "The PC is the overwhelming choice of most schools for meeting their 'commodity computing' needs, despite the PC's inherent initial unsuitability for such a task. Global economic forces have propelled the PC to dominance when it was a relatively hopeless proposition educationally." He says the PC has now evolved into a reasonably useful educational tool, and adds: "Perhaps we can now move the debate up a level to discuss exactly what we do with computers educationally, rather than worrying about whichplatform to buy."
Fine words, but those schools with Acorn or Apple system are less likely to agree to having their investments thrown on the scrapheap. Nick Evans, of Xemplar says: "I think it's rather arrogant to make this sort of choice for education. There are arguments that PCs will completely take over and that this is inevitable. Well, I'm not convinced."