By now all of the UK's 31,000 schools will have received Microsoft's invitation to get on to the Internet for free. The offer from the world's leading software company came after AOL, the world's largest network and Internet service, offered free access to all UK secondary schools in March.
If Microsoft's offer sounds like "me-too", it has upped the ante by adding a training video and a software bundle on its Netstart CD-Rom. Here schools will find the tools they need not only to explore the Internet, but also to publish a Web site.
The free CD-Rom includes Windows 95 and Microsoft's Internet surfer, Internet Explorer. With that, a modem, a new-ish PC computer, and a phone point, the Internet ought to be fewer clicks away than before, since the necessary plumbing is built into the system.
Schools can access the Internet as much as they need, or as much as the phone bill can take. The bill might be reduced, however, using Web Whacker - another freebie - which can store Internet pages for future use. Stored pages can be copied to a floppy and read at leisure using almost any computer or even over a network.
Those eager for the exciting buzz of Internet publishing will value the leg-up offered by Internet Assistant. It adds features to Microsoft's word processor Word, and can save almost any piece of work in Internet format. Internet Assistant scores well against similar tools.
Also on the CD-Rom is a six-month trial of Front Page, which designs Web sites. This really is for those with big intentions, where pages need a corporate identity or have special graphic effects. Front Page is awesome, but not really for novices.
Besides the Internet proper, schools can access the Microsoft Network (MSN), an exclusive area with news and lots of consumer fare. For education, there's a teacher's discussion area, the Encarta encyclopedia, activities to use in class and more.
This is an opportunity for people to get up to speed and see what the Internet can do. Software for Apple Macs or Windows 3.1 PCs is expected later this year. But for those exclusively using Acorn's Risc OS machines, it smacks painfully of "what you would have won".
The full deal
* Free unlimited access to the Internet and Microsoft Network * 10 megabytes of server space for Web pages at The Education Exchange (Edex) * CD-Rom with Windows 95, Front Page trial edition, Internet Assistants and Application Viewers for Microsoft Office.
* MS Internet Information Server for setting up Web servers * Windows NT Server trial edition for school networks.
Microsoft Internet hotline 0345 300125 x136 Microsoft Internet Offer, PO Box 46, Hounslow, TW4 6NF AOL 0800 2791 234 Or http:www.aol.com MSN 0800 750800 Or http:www.msn.com