Window to the future;Software
Looking back to the days when Windows 3.1 became 3.11, it was certainly an inspired move to start naming software after the year. When Word 95 became Word 97, we knew it was time to say goodbye and move on up to the latest version. Today, not even "techies" can buy this kind of software to two decimal places.
Later this year, it will be time to say goodbye to Windows 98, as Microsoft introduces Windows 2000. It's a fundamental change, blending Windows 98 - which seeks out the equipment in a machine and even gets it to work - with Windows NT, the professional's alternative. What's promised (again!) is a computer operating system that's speedier, easier to set up, and which will crash less often.
The fact that Windows 2000 will be a "32-bit" system will add little to staff room chat, but it does affect any buying decisions that you may be making now. (A completely 32-bit system makes more efficient use of the hardware, as opposed to Windows 95, which is a mixture of 16 and 32-bits.) In particular, you'd want to check that the machines are up to the specifications that the new Windows will demand.
The wise ones, who prefer to upgrade late in life, will want to head for the "Windows 2000-ready" machines which are beginning to appear. Yet it would be wiser still to hold off buying anything until the computer world settles after the shake-up that Windows 2000 will create.
The Microsoft Office suite is also due for refurbishment. While Windows 2000 boasts a changing of much of its innards, Office 2000 - with its Word, Excel and PowerPoint 2000 programs - has had a serious makeover.
It's not so much Office's looks that change here, but the way it breathes "Internet". For example, you can drop the idea of a "Word file" and start to save work as web pages which, it would seem, have the same appearance. For instance, if you saved an Excel spreadsheet with data and graphs as a web page, a pupil could pick it up and work on it in Excel. Likewise, PowerPoint can quickly turn a slide show into some clever-looking pages. These can be put on a website or broadcasted across the Internet.
If that seems hard, rest assured that sending work to the Web will soon become passe. In particular, Office's file-save dialogue has changed to make putting work on the Internet or school intranet as easy as saving it to disk. If the school has agreed on a colour scheme or theme for your work, it should appear on the Internet looking neat and consistent. Even so, many will not want everyone in school to have this new freedom.
While such enhancements could take ages to turn into educational benefits, some seem overdue. For example, Word will now let you click half-down a page and start typing. Office also offers "knowledge tools" - like an endless clipboard that lets you scour the Internet, documents, or whatever, and collate your finds with less copying and pasting. You quickly get the idea that it's time to move out of school and into a web browser.
Set beside these ideas, other changes in Office may also seem passe. The menus have become cleverer - the features you use stay, while those you don't are dropped down the list. The toolbar buttons do something like this too - if you never press a button, it gets sent off the screen to make space.
In the meantime, watch out for Internet Explorer 5, Microsoft's new browser software. It includes a taste of that Internet world and makes a few nice concessions to those who are not online all the time. For example, at last it lets you save a web page complete with its graphics, plus it lets you capture a set of pages so you can use it later with a class.
A neat addition is that you can now email a whole page to a colleague. This will be much more useful than sending them a "www" page address. Finally, those burdened down with "spam" email, will greatly enjoy its junk mail filter which reads the stuff before you have to. Dream on to the day when it manages the replies.