At Easter, the school management software group Key Solutions announced that it had become part of leading educational hardware supplier, Research Machines. This is a significant and potentially far-reaching development, and brings up to date 18 months of important events.
First, over a year ago, three management information system (MIS) suppliers Educational Systems Ltd, Morgan Barnett Associates and Timetable Systems formed the alliance which later became Key Solutions. Then, last spring, in another neck of the forest, Nord Systems, suppliers of Script, went into receivership. Script was bought by Sanderson Electronics and relaunched in the autumn as Script for Windows.
Meanwhile, Scott Reed Associates, supplier of the Phoenix management portfolio, made a working alliance with financial software specialists GTi. And to finish off 1994 came the announcement that market leader SIMS had become part of the Capita Group.
All the time, of course, new players are arriving on the scene, bidding either for core administration business or for some of the more peripheral functions. Thus, earlier this year (TES Computers Update, March 24) I reported on CCM Software's Facility Timetabler for Windows, together with its companion Options program.
I also looked at the Quadrant Facilities School Database for property management, and at Chameleon, from Oracle Educational Systems, probably the latest entrant into the market.
The changes, however, did not stop there. In March, SIMS announced its acquisition of Timetable Systems (from Key Solutions), supplier of the various Nova timetable modules. What this move did was to deprive Key Solutions of the ability to offer a Windows timetabler. And, of course, SIMS now has one ready-made, which lines up well with its plan to move to Windows.
Unsurprisingly, SIMS was delighted with this development and announced attractive new offers and reassured users about continuing support.
The Key Solutions people were putting on an extremely brave face. Nye Davies was at pains to emphasise the commercial success of his firm over the past months.
"We've doubled our turnover and quadrupled our profits. The ideas we had 12 months ago have come to fruition," he added. That, though, was a long way from being the end of the story, for up the sleeve of Key Solutions was one of the most significant of all these developments the announcement that the company had become the first wholly-owned subsidiary of the major schools IT supplier, Research Machines. Nye Davies believes that the RM name will give Key Solutions a great deal more financial credibility in the cautious public sector market: "It closes the door on the one criticism that authorities could level at us that they liked our software, but we were too small."
The gain for Research Machines, of course, is that in one fell swoop it has access to a whole new market. The beauty of it is that, in so many schools, RM hardware is sitting there waiting to help with administration. As Nye Davies put it, "This is the last piece in their jigsaw, because up to now they have had no admin software."
The implications of all these changes are potentially far-reaching in that schools information systems, long dominated by SIMS, are now being determinedly competed for by some major serious players who are there to stay.
Sanderson, for example, has a long track record in providing software to other areas of local government, and the firm is prepared to invest a lot of time and effort in convincing customers of the merits of Script for Windows. As David O'Byrne, of Sanderson, put it, "We see this as a marathon, not a sprint. We are committed long-term, because we believe we have the right product. What we have to do is earn the respect of the market place."
Meanwhile, it goes without saying that SIMS will be responding as vigorously as it always has. Which means that, whatever the customers decide, they are more certain than ever of finding a range of products offering value for money. The important thing for heads and governors is to make sure they know what is on offer, and make informed comparisons.
Gerald Haigh Key Solutions RM, One The Old Yard, Rectory Lane, Brasted, Kent TN16 1JP. Tel: 01959 565959Sanderson PSS, South Point, South Accommodation Road, Leeds LS10 1PP. Tel: 01132 542000The SIMS Centre, Abbotts Road, Priory Business Park, Cardington, Bedford MK44 3SG. Tel: 01234 838080