Beware geeks bearing gifts

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Recently I attended a presentation given to all the major UK suppliers of ICT goods and services to schools.

It was hosted by the Becta, the government quango responsible for the use of ICT in schools, and was all very worthy with a lot of talk about value for money and exhortations to encourage diversity, simplify supply lines and so on, but just one slide of the presentation did jerk me into life.

On it was a differentiation between proprietary software; free software and open source software. Naturally I asked the presenter for clarification of the terms as I was a little confused.

He was unable to clarify beyond saying 'well, you know, for example Google Earth is free software and we would like to encourage schools to take advantage of this kind of (good) thing'.

Fair enough. Google Earth is a fine free application and never mind that it is proprietary software in the sense that all proprietary software is proprietary in as much as it is owned by someone and you dont know how they did it.

Never mind either that open source software does not have to be supplied free (though much is of course) and that no one owns it and you can see how it was done from the code supplied with it.

These niceties are a little advanced yet for our Government friends.

No, what got me thinking was the whole thing about what is generically called 'freeware' (proprietary free software) and its use in schools.

I admit to using loads of the stuff and installing it on lots of friend's computers. Probably my most popular are the Google suite of goodies and AVG's free anti virus package. There are of course loads more, Opera, WinAmp, SpyBot, iTunes, Picasa spring to mind.

Little mini alarm bells however started ringing in my head quite recently (tinnitus?). We all know that in the freeware sector of the market “revenue models” are oft discussed along the lines of “how the hell do you make money from this stuff?”. With something like iTunes it is patently (no pun intended) obvious, less so say with Picasa.

An interesting “journey-to-revenue” is provided by the story (ongoing) of Grisoft's AVG anti virus software for Windows. Being a long term AVG fan I have installed the free virus checker on (friends) Window boxes for many years.

AVG now at version 8 still has a free version and very fine it is too; ok it's a little tricky for the non technical to now find the free alternative when automatically upgrading from 7.5, but it can be done, and if you wish to avail yourself of the extra features of the paid-for versions the prices are very reasonable.

However, when upgrading a tranche of older laptops I have run into problems. Upgrading them to Windows Service Pack 2 and installing more RAM onto 4 year old XP Home setups being a most time consuming activity. It comes as no surprise that a few owners simply decided to go to PC World and buy a new laptop thereby ensuring one more sale of increasingly stalled Vista!

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