Trading on misguided loyalties?

20th October 1995 at 01:00
Choice of operating platform is becoming ever more important to schools as CD Rom takes off, argues Andy Lambert.

While the Department for Education's recent Pounds 9.5 million, two-year project to put CD-Rom technology into English schools was warmly welcomed by schools and educationists, some of the policy questions remain unanswered. But the general feeling is that schools which received Acorn CD-Rom machines may have missed out on the booming world market in CD-Roms.

In 1994 the National Council for Educational Technology was asked to manage on behalf of the then DFE an initiative on CD-Roms in primary schools. With about Pounds 4.5 million of taxpayers' money, the council purchased complete multimedia workstations with a set of CD-Rom titles and allocated them to English schools. The following year a further Pounds 5 million was spent.

A recent survey by the National Association of Advisers for Computers in Education asked its members about the 1995 initiative. A remarkable 82 per cent said that if further money was available at the end of the current financial year they would like to continue to target CD-Roms on primary schools.

There were reservations about the exact implementations of any further scheme, but as the majority of the association's members are grass roots local authority advisers and inspectors, it is clear that palpable positive effects are being observed.

The Open University was commissioned to produce an evaluative report, now at the Department for Education and Employment, and this may see the light of day next year (I could not get a preview). What the initiative has done, however, is to go some way to resolving the chicken-and-egg scenario they were faced with. How could they get publishers to produce CD-Rom titles for the primary age range when there were insufficient machines out there? And how to get primary schools to buy machines when there were so few appropriate titles?

It would be interesting to know how many schools have purchased additional CD-Rom machines. To my knowledge it is a significant number; in some cases to satisfy equal opportunities, in others because of the sheer positive impact that these technologies are having in the classroom.

There is, however, a problem with the machines being ordered by schools. In the 1994 initiative, the "big three" hardware platforms were successful in varying degrees. Acorn supplied 1,127 machines, Research Machines (Windows PCs) 938 and Apple, which was lauding its machine as the best multimedia platform (most multimedia titles are developed on Apple), a paltry 232. The number of CD-Roms supplied with each machine also varied: Apple had 13 titles; PCs 11 titles; Acorn only managed 7.

In 1995, another initiative was launched, aimed at the same primary CD-Rom arena. Even more money flowed to the big three. Acorn shifted 1,109 boxes, RM PCs 1,270, and Apple again came last, with 296 multimedia workstations supplied. Both the Apple and PC machines came with 12 titles and the Acorn machine had 10. The picture was again emerging of local education authorities and schools choosing a platform on a historical basis rather than on the software available (and likely to be produced in future), and the capabilities of the machine and its future use.

If you look at the number of CD-Roms supplied for evaluation to the NCET in 1995 you come up with the following: Acorn 54; Apple 144; PC 256. A considerable difference in titles to choose from, yet approximately the same number of titles were supplied with the computers.

If this is compared with figures in the CD-Rom Directory, as of June 1995 Acorn had 107 titles, Apple 3,335, and PC 6,820. If you were a software publisher which market would you aim for?

A few LEAs that had a large installed base of Acorn machines looked at the other platforms of PC and Apple for future CD-Rom use, but they were in the minority. However, in LEAs where a mixed economy of machines were supplied it was not uncommon to hear quotes from teachers such as "The Mac and PC titles are more exciting," or, on seeing an Apple CD-Rom work, "I'm impressed with the fact that you just put the CD-Rom in, click on it and it runs. There is no faffing about like on the Acorns."

Dorling Kindersley has a considerable penetration into the schools book market. With the launch of its award-winning CD-Roms its representatives were becoming frustrated entering schools and finding that Dorling Kindersley titles would not run on the older Acorn equipment in school. Now, with an Acorn reader disc, PB Bear (and soon other Dorling Kindersley CD-Roms) can be run on Risc OS (the operating system for Acorn) computers with a CD-Rom drive. The supply of future CD-Roms from the Dorling Kindersley range will depend on a third-party company, Desktop Laminations, which hopes to have The Way Things Work showing at Acorn World '95 at the end of October.

Time and again, Acorn has been pressed to give its users access to Windows Multimedia PC CDs, the biggest market. But even though Acorn finally launched its PC card nearly a year after its RiscPC computer (the PC was supposed to indicate PC compatibility), there are still doubts about full compatibility.

I asked Acorn about the current situation and got the following news: "The new version of software for the Risc PC card is designed to enable Windows-compatible software, including CD-Roms, to run on the Acorn Risc PC. This new software includes 16-bit sound support, allowing sound files with a WAV extension to be played back . . . will be available from the end of October, and will be included as standard with all new Risc PC cards shipped from now onwards."

All I wanted to know was whether Acorn machines could (fully) play Windows Multimedia PC discs. Of course, if I was buying one, I would want to see the machine running the titles before purchase, and ask if it could run MS-Dos CD-Roms as well. When you enter the PC world, the many "standards" mean that you may have to configure your system and need to alter your user-fiendish autoexec.bat and config.sys files.

Then there is the price of Acorn's current CD-Rom machine the Risc PC. If you purchase an 8 megabyte Risc PC with CD drive you are looking at Pounds 1,599 plus VAT. Some Acorn aficionados have said that for that price they can buy an Acorn A3020 and a 486 Multimedia PC, and that if they were starting out down the computing road today they would think carefully before considering the Acorn option.

The trouble with the arguments over which computer platform is best for schools is that it is rife with politics (with a small "p") and vested interests. Most technologists advise new users to find the software they want, and will want, to use and then buy the computer which runs it. The primary schools with Apple and PC CD-Roms under the Government scheme will always be able to draw on a massive world market for new CDs (UK developers are also drifting over from Acorn to PC and Mac). But the Acorn users, despite having extremely useful classroom machines with a few excellent titles, will remain locked into what appears to be an increasingly small world, and cannot join the wider software world without costly technical upgrades.

On PCs and Macs, CD-Roms have taken off, titles are blossoming on a great range of subjects, and aggressive pricing is making them more affordable. According to Microsoft boss Bill Gates, this "new papyrus" is putting computers into millions of homes and schools.

As SonyPhilips and Time WarnerToshiba settle their differences and agree on the next-generation CD standards, it shows that choosing the right platform has become even more important.

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