Bill Gates made his fortune by ruthlessly exploiting
the main chance. But that doesn't mean we should scorn his role in wiring
up our schools, argue Jack Schofield and Rebecca Smithers: he stands to
gain, but so does the next generation.
Microsoft and schools: Windows of opportunity
TODAY, the British education system is due to receive some helpful advice from someone who attended a superior private school near Seattle, and who may be around $40 billion better off because he dropped out of Harvard and moved to New Mexico to write programs for the first popular microcomputer.
William Henry Gates III, who co-founded Microsoft in 1975, will not be telling Tony Blair about the problems of controlling class 3C on a wet Friday afternoon. Instead we can expect him to convey the message that our schools need a huge investment in up-to-date personal computers (PCs) and Internet connections. The fact that these computers will almost inevitably be PC-compatibles running Microsoft's Windows operating system, Microsoft's Office suite of applications, and Microsoft's Encarta encyclopaedia is no doubt incidental.
The speculation is that Gates may have agreed to oversee a scheme for putting computers and software into British schools, and linking them to the Internet. It would not be a surprise if Gates donated a substantial amount of Microsoft software, but this is already available to schools on deep educational discounts. It is perhaps less likely that he will intervene to arrange bulk deals with hardware manufacturers, because cut-throat competition in the PC business has already cut profit margins. Still, he knows the people to talk to: companies like Compaq, IBM and Dell are Microsoft's biggest customers.
What seems more likely is that Gates will act as a figurehead, as he does with Malaysia's 'super corridor' development for increasing Internet use. This will give Blair the kudos of associating with the world's richest man, while Gates adds to his own reputation.
But at least Gates, like Blair, believes in education. In his book The Road Ahead, written with the Microsoft visionary Nathan Mhyrvold and the journalist Peter Rinearson, Gates says: 'Maybe it's just my innate optimism, but I expect education of all kinds to improve significantly within the next decade. I believe that information technology will empower people of all ages, both inside and outside the classroom, to learn more easily, enjoyably, and successfully than ever before. Improving education is the best investment we can make . . . That's why putting computers and the Internet to work in schools is an exhilarating prospect.'
This is a more noble aim than the ideas that first took computers into British schools in the early 1980s with the Conservative government's Computers in Schools scheme. At the time, 'computer literacy' meant learning to program in Basic, a simplified computer language. The motivation was the fear that Britain was going to be left behind in the information revolution.
The results failed to live up to expectations. Yes, Britain did lead the world in putting computers into schools — but a large proportion of those machines are now obsolete, and many are incompatible with today's dominant industry standards. The Stevenson Report(1) — an independent inquiry into Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Britain's schools, commissioned by Tony Blair and David Blunkett while in opposition — says bluntly that 'the state of ICT in our schools is primitive and not improving'.
Nor has British education's love affair with Acorn microcomputers — subsidised via the Computers in Schools scheme — been entirely happy. But a report on computers in schools published earlier this year by the management consultants McKinsey & Company(2) notes that: 'Even in the face of competition from machines operating Microsoft Windows, Acorn has retained about 70 per cent of the primary-school market and 25 per cent of secondary schools.' Tony Blair has said that by 2002 every one of the 32,000 schools in Britain will have modern computers, teachers skilled to teach on them, and pupils skilled to use them, connected to the superhighway for free. But what of teachers themselves?
David Hart, general secretary of the Head Teachers' Association, is taking the Gates initiative 'extremely seriously indeed'. 'If the Government intends to ensure that every school is equipped to meet the challenges of the new age of information technology, we can only applaud that. With pressure on public spending, the Government also deserves praise for using private money and expertise in this way.' But he warns that teachers must be properly trained. Previous reports on standards of IT teaching by the Government's own education inspectors Ofsted has shown patchy standards. Whatever the education industry may say, Gates's presumed intervention is likely to be supported by parents, who are already voting with their wallets. According to McKinsey, more than half of British families with children own computers; their availability in homes exceeds that in schools. Most parents are now buying PCs running Microsoft Windows.
Microsoft is often criticised for its dominance. Yet personal computers are no longer of much importance as things in themselves, only as 'platforms' for running applications programs. The best computer is the one that offers the widest choice of software and support, and for more than five years, that has been a PC running Microsoft Windows. Whether it is the 'best' technology or not is irrelevant. The success of any computer platform depends on setting up a virtuous circle whereby users buy the system that runs the most and best software, and programmers write their best software for the system that has the most users. Once that feedback loop kicks in, as it did with Windows in 1992, the result is likely to be the sort of 'natural monopoly' that Microsoft now enjoys.
The other driving force in the computer industry is more traditional — the economy of scale. It may cost $200 million to write a program, but it only costs $200 million plus $5 to produce two copies. This is what provides Microsoft with its huge profits, and what Microsoft itself regards as a ludicrous market capitalisation of around $160 billion.
If nothing else comes of the meeting between Gates and Blair, it enables one useful point to be made: information technology is a global industry and it makes no difference what Britain decides to do. Or at least, not to anyone else. Choosing or rejecting Windows is not going to make any significant difference to Microsoft's $11.4 billion turnover.
Now we must consider our past mistakes and the probable future, regardless of the arguments of the pro- and anti-Microsoft factions. Education is too important to take decisions out of spite.
[Sources: (1) See rubble.ultralab.anglia.ac.uk/ stevenson/;(2) The Future of IT in UK Schools, McKinsey & Co, March 1997]
07 October 1997
(C)Copyright 1997 The Guardian Newspaper