Once upon a time it was RM for PC supplies, but now the whole educational suppliers landscape has changed and RM's position is under threat as Jack Kenny reports
It is not easy for teachers to survey the PC suppliers available to schools. The usual starting point has been RM, but teachers are now increasingly looking elsewhere. It's not that they wish any harm to RM, it's just that they worry about a dominance that has been established ever since the Acorn Archimedes market went into decline after the introduction of CD-Rom.
Schools who had gone down that route started to wonder if they would get access to the right software and so the move away began. RM is seen by many as the Microsoft of education, with a similar mix of grudging respect and resentment. As RM says, it is a company solely dependent on education and teachers, and therefore has a clear focus. A criticism is that RM does too much for teachers and consequently does not let them grow. Another gripe is that RM attempts to lock teachers into its products, but its much copied Window Box has introduced more teachers to using computers than anything else.
Some thought that Becta's managed services would open the market to RM's challengers. Every teacher who realises that a managed service means they do not have to maintain computers is in favour of the idea. The concept is a winner but, in practice, after more than a year and a great deal of money, the Becta managed service idea has produced only two contracts. A side effect of Becta's approval process has been to give a quality mark to approved suppliers which increases their attractiveness to schools. In a world where there is little difference between PCs, schools have to look to other factors such as reliability and all-round service.
Granada Learning has some advantages over RM. It is a much leaner organisation and has access to some unique media resources. Recent purchases of companies like Black Cat, Letts, NFERNelson and Anglia mean that it has a wide-ranging portfolio. It does not build its own PCs but forms alliances and, at present, is using Compaq. Granada also supplies a "tools kit" which can be installed on most PCs in order to make them into a Window Box-type machine. The launch of an online learning service means that it is developing into a very rounded one-stop shop organisation.
Time Education brags that the Time group supplies more PCs than any other company in the UK. The education team has worked hard and won some significant contracts. It presents itself as a future-proofed company by also being a telecoms provider - it can supply Internet access via ADSL (a fast line) with Internet services supplied by Supanet.
Time's experience in the consumer market means that it has to keep absolutely up-to-date, offering the latest technology at very competitive prices (traditional educational companies are far more conservative). And this is a feature of other PC companies like Ahkter, Centerprise,Compaq, Elonex and Tiny. Even suppliers like the PC World chain are now moving into education.
Innovation has characterised some of Viglen's offerings. It claims to be able to beat RM on the price of the basic computers, but the attraction of its new network is that every PC can be connected to every other one to enable speech communication. It would therefore be possible to turn a network room into a language laboratory - worth exploring.
One of the PC magazines runs an annual poll to discover the top companies for reliability and Dan regularly tops the poll. A recent Which? report also found its PCs among the most reliable. Schools with reliability as key criteria for buying - most of them - should look at Dan. It has just won a big NGFL contract in Bradford.
IBM has to be taken seriously. It won one of the two Becta managed services contracts to be awarded so far. Mike Frisby, who has developed the education team, has considerable experience in education and has equipped the IBM PCs with software that schools will find useful. Computers such as the Aptiva and the ThinkPad rival any on the current market. The range and reliability of their equipment and the skill of the team Frisby has behind him make them contenders. Specifically for education there are Study Stations, all with 10 gigabyte drives and either a 633 or 566 processor.
The software is there in quantity and quality such as Textease Studio, Sassoon fonts, Junior Viewpoint, Maths in Motion, all backed by Lotus Smart Suite.
When Xemplar bit the dust it left a dealer network to be taken up by Lynx Education. Lynx started quietly, concentrating on PCs and trusted software bundles. Managing director Roland Westlake claims that its distinguishing features are years of experience of the education market and its countrywide network.
Finally, if you are adventurous you can look at Fen Systems. These are really different. Michael Brown describes the system as being based on Linux: "Our systems cost less to buy and less to run." There will also be an option to add older computers to the system. The whole set-up is based on one powerful computer linked to a number that are less powerful. Brown claims savings on software with Star Office as the basic suite, and savings on maintenance since Linux is stable.
If you want real adventure though, take a look at Apple. The company that gave us desktop publishing now has easy-to-use desktop video with iMovie software.
So, plenty to look at - RM is not having it all its own way.
RM: Stands D50, E50, TC9 and TC10
Granada Learning: Stands F40 and SN14
Time Group: Stand C60
Viglen: Stand F60
Dan: Stand G20
Fen Systems: Stand E140
Apple: Stand: F34