They call them turnkey systems: PCs loaded with software that is virtually impossible to damage. Jack Kenny examines a trend that is a boon to the techno-scared teacher.
The concept of Research Machines' Window Box - a ready-to-use computer with most of the software teachers need for the curriculum - was, like all brilliant ideas, obvious once someone had thought of it. It was needed because so many teachers still find computers, especially IBM and compatible PCs, intimidating.
Windows 95 may be more intuitive but a government survey has shown that only 37 per cent of the population use IT regularly. And recent market research by Xemplar indicated that 76 per cent of teachers are not comfortable with technology. So if use of IT is to become as widespread as the use of television or the phone, then computers will have to be as simple as those technologies. The Window Box is a step on the way, and now other computer companies are following RM's lead.
In 1992, the company started to supply what many teachers had been praying for: a machine to take out of a box, plug together, and that would work first time and be loaded with the software that would answer some of the demands of the national curriculum. These are known in the trade as turnkey systems, and RM's adoption of this concept has probably been an influential factor in its increasing success in the primary sector of the education market. Since 1992 the software range has improved, the security of the system is better and the curriculum coverage has been extended (see review below).
Unsurprisingly, there are now rivals and imitators. The only surprise is that they have taken so long to appear. MJN Education supplies machines below the price asked for by RM, so the competition could help make this technology cheaper. MJN advertises widely and supplies machines to the home market where it is trying to counter last year's adverse publicity. The schools section appears to be aware that computers in schools are given a harder time than computers in any other walk of life. They are run for longer, they are used by a wide variety of adults and children and they run a greater variety of applications. The new machine from MJN Education, the Primary PC (see page 41), is a powerful machine with good software and a good protection system to ensure that pupils do not wander into sensitive areas or attempt to re-configure the machine. The most surprising offering is its basic computer, The Discovery Machine, which is just Pounds 699 (a P150 with 16 megabytes of memory and a one gigabyte hard disc).
Xemplar's answer to the Window Box is its Toolbox range. The problem with Xemplar is that many people are unsure of the company's long-term strategy. Teachers need to know if there is a migration path for Acorn schools to emerging new types of computers before they make a commitment. The company does plan to develop a computer capable of running Apple, PC and Acorn software. This should satisfy the requirements of many schools, whose long-term strategy should be to preserve their investments.
For the primary area there is the Junior Toolbox (see page 41). Unlike the secondary Toolboxes, which are built around Risc PCs and Apple Performas, this one is based on an Acorn A7000 computer - a curious decision. The A7000 is already a couple of years old and is unlikely to be developed further. Schools must decide whether they wish to spend their hard-won money on this machine when future developments are likely to be around the Risc PC. Xemplar argues that it is a more cost-effective solution for primary schools. RM's Window Box, on the other hand, is based on the most recent technology.
In other respects Xemplar has followed the turnkey idea with a wide range of software. This comes installed on the hard disc and, as with RM's offerings, there is a training voucher. The cost is Pounds 1,395. The strength of the Acorn platform is in the range of software that it has inspired. That could also be a weakness with this system, with teachers looking at the software and groaning because Pendown or Pinpoint, or whatever else the school has been using for years is not included. Probably the most crucial question is: will any schools seeing these Toolboxes change their purchasing policy?
In the secondary sector the Toolboxes are targeted at curriculum areas: design and technology, mathematics, science, English, geography. The Apple Macintosh machine in the scheme is a Performa 5400 and the Acorn is a Risc PC 700. The software can also be bought separately. It will be interesting to see how these machines fare. Is there a market in secondary schools for these or is RM securing the secondary market with its networks?
It is puzzling that ICL has not made a greater impact on the education market. It has the resources. In recent years there have been glossy brochures but not a real feeling that the company is taking the education market as seriously as Xemplar and RM do. Schools can soon judge for themselves because ICL will launch new turnkey systems at BETT 97: the Primary Partner, the Numeracy and Literacy Partner and theInternet Partner.
Questions to ask:
* Is the installed softwareappropriate for the pupils?
* Does the installed software give good curriculum coverage?
* How good is the warranty?
* Are training vouchers supplied?
* Is there a telephone helpline?
* Will the machine be easy to manage?
* Is there a range of CDs and will the platform give access toplenty more?
* Will the machine be appropriate to access the Internet at some future time?
* Does the company have aleasing scheme?
* Will any machines that the school buys harmonise with machines that parents buy?
* BETT CONNECTIONS
ICL stand 250
MJN Education stand 670
RM stands 131, SN9
Xemplar stands 241, 440