SMEs once ran school ICT ... will they again?
It’s probably safe to say that the Smartphone and tablet revolution is not only unstoppable but is distinctly generation specific as illustrated by young Asok marvelling at Dilbert in a recent Scott Adams’ strip because he was still using his ‘grandpa’ computer. That’s it, game over; schools are populated by young people and ‘grandpa’ computers ... aarg! You do not have to have any special insight to work out the student-related rejectionist corollaries. The forthcoming changes in school ICT are of course inevitable just as was the PC revolution but there is an interesting story to be told about the business that will power the change. This tale involves SMEs (currently all the rage with HM Gov), Big IT Corps (currently nasty horrid rip-off artists according to HM Gov) and BECTA (the school’s ICT quango abolished by HM Gov as soon as they got in power). In the beginning was the PC: we all got very excited in schools and started buying them for educational purposes. Let’s skip past the early days (the Acorns, the Lisas, the ZX80s, the 380Zs and so on) to the ‘beige box’, the grandpa machine of today. Schools bought beige boxes from Apple, from DAN, from Akhter, from Amstrad, from Acorn and from the bloke down the road. We bought inkjet printers, bubblejet printers and laser printers from Olivetti, HP, Canon, Epson you name it ... it was a glorious time but it could not last. The enthusiasts loved it, the kids loved it but teachers, management and Local Authorities hated it. It was the classic SME-fest; lots of exciting ideas, good deals, esoteric hardware and companies growing fast then simply disappearing without trace. Support was chaotic, spending unaccounted and teachers never knew what they would meet in the computer room. So, in steps BECTA with a mission to restore order to the beige box chaos. And they did. Bit by bit the RMs and Dells emerged as major suppliers of sort of standard kit and Microsoft obliged with MS Office software which ran on the stuff and was happily heavily discounted for education. The above heralded the big-corp. procurement era which culminated in the very exclusive and expensive club known as ‘Building Schools for the Future ICT Scam’. In this era, quite early on, school ICT was ‘standardised’, the SMEs were duly purged and the one man band's dogs shot. In this era the Local Authorities were very happy making big deals with big firms; the teachers were happy because all the computers were the same as the ones they had at home; the big companies were happy with handsome profits and the kids were starting to get a little bored. Later on the above model was modified during the outsourcing craze. Basically you take the above kit, its software and support and give it to a company with a name like Serco or Capita. They needed to make a profit from their services at the same time as reducing the ICT running costs of the LA. They achieved both objectives so the LA was happy, the school management was happy but the teachers and kids were naffed off with their very grandpa kit and saw none of the savings themselves. So, that’s the brief history of the school PC in a few paragraphs but what of the future? How are we going to move into the Tablet and Smart Phone era that is the modern day equivalent of the PC revolution while at the same time the Local Education Authorities have had their wings clipped and money given back to schools? The good news is that all we need are vendors who honour guarantees and offer repair services ... think Carphone Warehouse ... we don’t need the Dells of this world or the HPs as all tablets and smartphones are essentially the same (like the old IBM Clone you may say). The second bit of good news is that System Integration which is being offered by SMEs and BigCorps is not needed for an Internet device (they will tell you otherwise) in the way that it was so essential to the grandpa network. Basically, we have come full circle. It’s back to the Wild West. Schools with money (and believe me they have lots) will buy kit they fancy. This time around though we wont need the ‘handy man with a dog’ or the ‘efficient and friendly SME’ or IT-Megacorp's Platinum SLA or the Outsourcer's Fire Sale Kit: we will just buy our commodity device from a shop. A new and fairly exciting ICT is about to happen and as before it will come from the grass roots. Grandpa computing is dead in schools fit only for the outsourcing market alongside the toilet rolls and sanitary services. One day BECTA will have to be re-invented to bring order and chase away the SMEs that have found a micro-niche (capacitate glass replacement services 24/7?) but until that happens ... enjoy.