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In bed with Microsoft


Derek McMillan
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I think that the Betamax thing is misleading. What do you mean by best? What do you mean by win?

No, I don't think it's misleading. It illustrates the way in which market forces tend to determine the way in which products thrive or fail. Most electronics experts agreed that the Betamax system was technically superior (i.e. "best" in this sense), and I remember buying a couple of Betamax systems for the university language centre of which I was director in the 1980s and 1990s. They were more compact and less prone to break down than the VHS systems that were around at the time. The problem was that more and more pre-recorded material (especially for language learners) began to be produced for VHS systems and less and less for Betamax systems, and my teachers therefore demanded that the Betamax systems should be phased out and replaced by VHS systems - which is what happened in the end. This is what I mean by "winning". It's rumoured that the large-scale production of "Bollywood" films for Indian diaspora and porn films in VHS format played a significant part in the demise of Betamax - but I don't have any concrete evidence to support this.

As for Macs, yes, it was mainly due to the policy of Apple not to licence its systems to other manufacturers that caused PCs to come to the fore, but at the same time - certainly in the educational sector in the UK - less and less subject-specific software was being produced for Macs, i.e. a similar situation to the Betamax/VHS situation described above. As a language centre director, I was at odds with the technicians who loved Macs and the teachers who could not get enough CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) software for them. In the end we centred on PCs. In the USA, however, Macs were the dominant machine in many (probably most) university language centres in the 1980s and 1990s and it was easy to obtain CALL software relating to the US schools curricula - I have seen a lot of excellent Mac CALL material demonstrated at conferences in the USA. Macs still hang on in US university language centres, but PCs are gradually edging them out.

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Its misleading for the reasons you cite.

There is no consensus that GNU/Linux is technically superior to Windows in the same way as there was with beta and VHS. Most of the consensus is that MS Office is technically superior to OpenOffice 1.1 at present though again there are arguments both ways. So the issue of technical superiority is the first red herring.

The reason there was less subject specific stuff for Macs in the UK was that Acorn had a much more dominant installation base in the early 80s and then it became obvious that the shift would be to PCs and that shift only really took off when the hardware price plummeted due to competition and economy of scale. Macs have only ever been a niche player in the education market in England. Acorn was the English equavalent of the Mac.

So the situation is not at all like the one with betamax and VHS and there is no real reason why open software systems for computer operating systems will not displace closed proprietary stuff in the future in the same way as the micro computer has become dominant at the expense of mainframe and mini-computers. Where I agree with you is that market forces will be influential and cost is a big factor in that equation. If VHS discs had cost 10 times as much as beta discs the story would have been completely different.

So while GNU/Linux at the desktop will not take over this year or next or perhaps ever, we can be sure it will take a slice of the market, particularly in price sensitive areas and the effect of that will be to force down MS prices. Whether to a level that negates the growth of GNU/Linux remains to be seen but overall a healthy alternative is good for all users of technolgy.

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OK, Ian, we agree to differ, but we seem to agree that market forces play a role in many choices that we have to make. I could keep my German up to scratch (I am a former teacher of German) at virtually no expense by going online and conversing with German native speaker colleagues in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in a Virtual Learning Environment. But, foolishly and heedless of the cost and market forces, I am shelling out hard-earned money to leave this country for two weeks on Sat 10 Jan to practise my German in the Austrian Tyrol. This is solely to improve my German and has nothing to do with enjoying the local food, wine and beer and cruising gently on skis down the beautifully groomed pistes, stopping off for the occasional glass of Glühwein in a chalet set in gorgeous mountain scenery. This is therefore my last message for a while...

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I'm off to play 5 a side. So if I'm not back you know it was terminal ;)

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My school Veurs College 3 in the Netherlands (www.veurs.nl) is running partly on a linux server.

Good for you! However I bet that Veurs is one of the few schools in The Netherlands to use Linux in the server area. Desktop systems is quite another thing.

Our systemmanager refuses to look into Linux. He claims it's too much fuzz, changing all the systems. On the other hand in 1995 he abandoned the Novell network for MS NT3 and just recently he's just gone through an upgrading experience from MS NT4 to Windows 2000. With 180 computers that is a lot of fuzz too! Upgrading to Win 2000 meant that part of the software had to be thrown away since it wouldn't run on that platform: what a waste! ;)

And now we're in the ratrace of upgrading from Office 2000 to Office XP without any real need: but it is MS that collects the cash!

Linux Desktop distributions like Red Hat, Suse or Mandrake using the KDE or Gnome interface are as userfriendly (or even better) than Windows. Open Office is a stable software to work with. And above all: Linux systems hardly ever suffer virusattacks, due to the nature of the system.

Last year MS increased the licence fees for their software. It caused turmoil in Dutch schools, but obviously MS gave in a little.

IMO it's only a matter of time and there will be another unashamed increase of licence fees and unfortunately I believe my director and systemmanager will be caught by surprise and totally unprepared. ;)

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And now we're in the ratrace of upgrading from Office 2000 to Office XP without any real need: but it is MS that collects the cash!

We just had a meeting in which we decided to do the same upgrade. According to our systemmanagers it would make live more easier. well, not for them. ;) upgrading the pc's at more than 5 locations is a really big job.

Is there a need? Not from a user viewpoint i guess, however , i also think we should give students the most up to date software we can afford. This to prepare them for society, one of the aims in education ;)

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Can we wean schools from Microsoft addiction?

Replace Office with an alternative like Open Office.

See if there are any problems.

Count up the money you have saved

Replace IE with Mozilla

See if there are any problems.

Then consider Linux because we can still use these programs with Linux and Microsoft "suddenly" becomes useless!

Graham states the size of the problem correctly...but my school can save a lot of money....perhaps the school down the road might be interested...and another and another...

and at the same time we are helping Thai schools to make the same transition by sending the odd CD to a school in Thailand out of the small amounts made from selling CDs to pupils so they can try Open Office (Mozilla is so widely available it is not worthwhile probably)

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Yes, but what do you feel about preparing students for a 'microsoft'society?

The concept of a Microsoft Society is anti-democratic. In so far as Windows is currently a monopoly that restricts competition, raises prices and curtails freedom, its undesirable enough, but the implication of a MS Society where MS has even more political power over a broader range of technologies is highly undesirable. I think maybe we should be preparing pupils to understand the economic and political implications of putting too much technological power into the hands of non-elected orgaisations. So let's talk about broad education that enables individuals to question the marketing propaganda of not just MS but all larege corporations.

I suspect you were thinking more along the lines of - they will use MS word when they leave school so we must teach them using MS Word at school. In fact, young people take virtually no time to adjust from a shift from OpenOffice.org Writer to Word and back, its usually adults who have the problems. If we genuinely want to education children for change, we should be actively encouraging them to use different tools to gain confidence in the underlying principles not channeling them into a narrow set of button pressing where if something unexpected happens they are shouting for technical support. Of course many of the current generation of adults are technophobes and many of these are in positions of influence. We have to be careful that they don't transfer their prejudices to the next generation.

It costs nothing but a bit of time to put OpenOffice.org on a school network alongside MS Office so why not give them some choice? The truth is we don't know what society the pupils will move into in 5 or 10 years time, so prepare them for technological change.

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I suspect you were thinking more along the lines of - they will use MS word when they leave school so we must teach them using MS Word at school. If we genuinely want to education children for change, we should be actively encouraging them to use different tools to gain confidence in the underlying principles not channeling them into a narrow set of button pressing where if something unexpected happens they are shouting for technical support. Of course many of the current generation of adults are technophobes and many of these are in positions of influence. We have to be careful that they don't transfer their prejudices to the next generation.

It costs nothing but a bit of time to put OpenOffice.org on a school network alongside MS Office so why not give them some choice? The truth is we don't know what society the pupils will move into in 5 or 10 years time, so prepare them for technological change.

Yes but running two kinds of different software on your schoolnetwork can prove to be very complicated (for lack of a better word). I agree that we do not know what society will be like 5 to 10 years from now but i think it is reasonable to state that MS will be very present. Of course we need to prepare students for change and we need them to become flexible. But from a schools point of view why would i use two systems when one suffices?

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Guest Andrew Moore

When personal computing was an expensive minority interest, Bill Gates did much to make it affordable and usable for the ordinary person.

That was then. Now Microsoft is a malign influence, since it seeks to own what should really belong to us all.

But no-one forces us to use this stuff - it's only our assumption that today's dominant technology has to be tomorrow's.

Microsoft offends in many ways:

It more or less dictates the rules of ownership.

It decides that we cannot buy products outright, but must subscribe annually.

It publishes "upgrades" that require extra system resources - thereby making perfectly usable PCs seem useless (so we discard them, and add to pollution).

European governments spend vast amounts of money on this stuff, yet still the technology is not affordable everywhere.

By contrast, Open Source software is more robust (less prone to virus attack), and runs on equipment that we would throw away and replace, if we stuck with MS stuff.

So long as we insist on using MS or other expensive products, we guarantee that many pupils and parents cannot share the software (we cannot buy it for them all). If we use OpenOffice.org (for example) then we can ensure that everyone has the same freeware that our pupils use.

Businesses do not, perhaps, understand this, or have the time to reflect. But educators can lead the way and do the right thing. If every child in Europe leaves school, having learned to use Open Source applications, then business will quickly follow our lead - which is maybe the way the world ought to be.

If the software designers were really clever, they would be finding ways to make the stuff more productive, while using less of the system resources (which, of course, many do).

After all, Open Source software runs the Internet and the World Wide Web.

The economic arguments here meet the ecological and moral arguments. We can choose to breathe air that comes to us freely - that we all share and own collectively. And then, we can drop our concern with the more arcane features of, say, text formatting, and use the stuff to make documents, spreadsheets, databases and so on, with their own integrity. Or we can keep paying the tax.

If we choose not to be liberated now, we may have to do so in a few years, anyway, when Indian and Chinese computer users, who will not pay the MS tax, have made Open Source products the standard software for the world.

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But educators can lead the way and do the right thing. If every child in Europe leaves school, having learned to use Open Source applications, then business will quickly follow our lead - which is maybe the way the world ought to be.

If every child in Europe leaves school having learned to use open Source applications yes a change can be made. However how do we make Open Source software more popular for use in schools? I think we need to think about that one as well.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've heard the Betamax - VHS argument for years too. The reason I think it's irrelevant is that video tapes basically do two things (play and record), whilst computers do lots of things.

I've often had the experience of working in educational organisations where the vast majority of teachers use PCs, but where nearly all the innovative work is being done by the people who don't use PCs.

My explanation for this situation is that the idea that educational development is a matter of writing a killer educational app is an illusion. Innovation seems to come from the ground up, and from teachers who have first the confidence and much later the time to innovate.

My observation, as a non-PC Windows user, is that large numbers of Windows users seem to have learned *not* to be confident with computers - even when they work, you never know when the next crash, or computer virus, or sudden incomprehensible message from the IT support department is going to come along.

I agree with the previous contributors: this is potentially an enormous problem for Microsoft and its loyal supporters. IT is expensive enough already - and the returns, in terms of improvements to the job in hand, are still fairly scanty.

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