A software utility and a minor hardware addition can make a school's computer stock stretch further. George Cole reports
In an ideal world, every teacher and student would have their own computer. But even the hundreds of millions currently being invested in information and communications technology will not achieve that goal. However, a product made by a small Yorkshire company means that schools could greatly increase their access to ICT - and do it more cheaply.
Sharedware is a plug-in board that fits inside a PC running Windows 95 or 98, and allows two people to use a single computer at the same time, courtesy of an add-on "slave" computer. The slave machine simply consists of a monitor, keyboard and mouse, and is linked to the "master" computer by a small module and cable. The two computers can be up to 15 metres apart.
Once Sharedware is set up (it uses the Windows plug-and-play system), the two users can operate their computers independently. One person could, say, access a CD-Rom, while the other use a word processor. Sharedware even allows two people to surf the Internet independently through a single phone line.
"Cost of ownership is a big issue these days," says Richard Seddon, Sharedware's sales director. "This product greatly reduces a school's hardware costs, leaving more money for software or training."
Running two machines from a single computer requires a fair bit of processing power, and Sharedware recommends a PC with the minimum of a Pentium 166MHz chip and 32Mb of memory (RAM). There are two versions. Sharedware Office (pound;152.75 inc VAT) can run video, but does not support sound. Many programs and webpages do not use sound, so this isn't such a great problem. Sharedware Savage (pound;200 inc VAT) offers sound and higher resolution graphics. and this version is also recommended for schools wanting to use computer-aided design (CAD) packages.
Sharedware could also be used to increase the size of a computer network without resorting to additional network cards. A complete package, consisting of a Sharedware Office card, monitor, keyboard and mouse at pound;270.25 for a 14-inch monitor, and pound;293.75 for a 15-inch version. "Schools can use their own old monitors and keyboards and, if you upgrade the master PC, you automatically upgrade the second one too," says Seddon.
Sharedware is used in around 2,500 schools, and Kirklees local authority has put Sharedware computers into 450 primary schools. Marsden Junior School, West Yorkshire, was supplied with an ISDN digital telephone line, Internet connection and seven computers equipped with Sharedware.
"You effectively double your computers," says headteacher Stephen Thomas. "It means you can have half a class on computers at the same time." Marsden Junior also runs adult training courses and Sharedware has enabled more adults to use computers. Thomas adds that computers using Sharedware don't break down any more frequently than those used normally. His verdict? "It's an opportunity all schools should consider."
Using software on more than one machine could present licensing problems, but Seddon maintains that if the software is licensed per computer, then only a single license is required. But if it is charged per user, then additional licences are required, as would be the case when purchasing a second PC: "Windows 95 is licensed on a per computer basis, and there are thousands of software packages out there that also use the same licensing system," says Seddon.
Sharedware has tried getting a number of PC manufacturers interested in its product, but has hit a brick wall. The signs are that PC manufacturers see Sharedware as a threat to their business, but this is a shortsighted view. Most schools cannot afford to double the number of computers they own by purchasing additional computers, and Sharedware also opens the way for parents to have a second computer in the home.
Anyone seriously concerned about increasing access to ICT, should take a close look at this product. And if computer manufacturers are serious about opening up ICT to more people, they should think about offering Sharedware on some of their products.
Sharedware 01274 4011010 www.sharedware.com