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Mixed Signals: Computer Plans Frustrated by Incompatibility

By William Snider — February 12, 1986 7 min read

Although computer manufacturers have begun to talk about trying to standardize their products, the incompatibility of the hardware and software now on the market is posing a substantial long-range planning problem for school administrators.

“People in school districts find themselves frustrated when a new piece of software comes out that they can’t run on their machine,” said Marc Tucker, executive director of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy.

“Or if they buy a machine that is incompatible, they can’t use the software that they already have,” he added. ''They don’t want to deal with these kinds of problems--they’re interested in what they can do from an instructional viewpoint.”

But industry experts predict that personal-computer components are unlikely to be standardized within the next decade.

The resulting choice for school administrators, who are expected to invest $600 million this year alone for computer-related equipment, is between adding equipment that is compatible with their existing stock--but may soon be obsolete--or purchasing the most advanced technology--which may not work with their present hardware and software.

One market analyst predicts that most schools will “continue to purchase the equipment they’ve tried and are happy with, until the industry shakes itself out.”

Standardization Dilemma

From a user’s viewpoint, it would be ideal if any software program could operate on any personal computer--just as a cassette tape by any manufacturer will operate in any manufactured cassette player. Instead, a school’s choice of computer hardware limits its software choices, and vice versa.

But educators should not expect the computer industry to respond quickly to such dilemmas, because “school people have never had the clout that drives technology,” said Frank Withrow, director of the division of technology in the U.S. Education Department’s office of educational research and improvement. ''The educational market just isn’t that large.”

In fact, despite repeated calls for the computer industry to develop standards, many experts do not see standardization as a desirable goal--yet.

“Once you set a standard for an industry, you limit the development of future technology,” said Mr. Withrow.

”If we had standardized everything 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have the microprocessors we have today,” said Thomas Pyke, of the National Bureau of Standards.

Standardization would eliminate opportunities for vendors to come out with new products,” he said. “It’s in everyone’s interest that they continue to innovate and develop new technology.”

“Moreover, the complexity of software makes it much more difficult to standardize than has proven the case with earlier technologies,” said Mr. Pyke, who also served on a task force on computers in the schools of Arlington County, Va.

‘De Facto’ Standards

In the business world, a de facto standard currently exists because of the dominance of the market by the International Business Machines Corporation. The education market, however, remains split among a broader range of technologies.

More than half of the computers in the schools were manufactured by Apple Computer Inc, according to a 1984-85 survey by Talmis Inc., which conducts annual surveys of school computer purchases. Most of those computers are members of the Apple II family (the II, lIplus, lIc, and lIe), all based on an 8-bit microprocessor.

The 8-bit microprocessor is found in only a small fraction of business machines, leading some to criticize its usefulness in training students for future careers.

But purchasers face a more immediate Problem--the educational software designed for an 8-bit machine does not run on a 16-bit machine, such as IBM’s PC, or on a 32-bit machine, such as Apple’s MacIntosh.

The incompatibility of computers found in schools has slowed the development of high-quality educational software, observers say.

Most software developers devise their educational programs first to work on 8-bit computers, since those machines represent the largest potential market, said Kenneth A. Wasch, executive director of the Software Publishers Association.

If they have the resources, he said, they then revise the software to work on other computers that are frequently found in schools.

“If we could do it in one format,” he said, “we could have 10 times as many programs.”

“It is in the interest of the entire software industry that the computer industry move towards standardization,” Mr. Wasch said. “Over a long period of time we will not be able to support several different formats.”

But although software publishers “would like to encourage standardization in some areas,” he said, they don’t want to hinder the development of the next generation of machines.

“It’s too bad that schools invested in a few 8-bit computers, because it locks every school in the country into what existed before,” said Henry Jay Becker, author of two surveys of school microcomputer use for the Johns Hopkins Center for the Social Organization of Schools.

“The fact that almost every school made a small investment in 8-bit machines is slowing down the development of software for 16-bit systems,” he said.

Possible Strategies

Given the likelihood that incompatibility will remain a problem for the immediate future, school officials have a choice of several computer-use strategies, experts say:

  • By making a large investment in a minicomputer or mainframe system, which would support a number of separate terminals, they can obtain the more sophisticated software available for large machines, increase their capabilities, and bypass personal computers entirely.
  • They can upgrade their hardware, without rendering their software obsolete, by purchasing packages that permit software from less sophisticated machines to run on more complex ones.
  • They can postpone computer purchases until the development of a unified operating system--now in the research-and-development stage--which would allow virtually any software to be run on machines with enough memory and storage capacity.
  • They can proceed with the purchase of software for applications the fastest-growing use for school computers. That software is widely available for all types of personal computers, unlike curriculum-based software programs.

Regardless of which strategy educators follow, most experts advise that they begin by determining their educational objectives, then choose appropriate software, and finally select a machine that can run that software.

Planning for Obsolescence

Schools must also rethink the way they purchase capital equipment, according to Mr. Tucker of the Carnegie Forum.

“School districts ought not take the view that equipment is useful for the life of the machine-computers may have a useful life of our or five years,” he said.

Educators, he added, “may have to sell their computers after a few years, or they may lease them from someone who has an obligation to keep their equipment up to date.”

If schools roll over part of their inventory on a continuing basis, “some part of it is never far behind the state of the art,” he added.

Growing a System

In the meantime, Apple Computer is currently developing programs to help schools upgrade their technology within the 8-bit Apple II line, which was first sold in 1978.

“We don’t want to penalize those who bought Apple II’s early on,” said Anne Patterson, manager of K-12 marketing programs for the company. “Smart business dictates that we are sensitive to the concerns of educators.”

Apple has offered schools cash rebates toward the purchase of up-to-date computers when they trade in used Apple equipment.

The entire Apple 11 line can also be upgraded to current standards of memory storage and functionality with kits that can be installed by users, she added.

Without revealing any details, Ms. Patterson said the emphasis in Apple’s spring programs will be to allow educators to “grow a system” within Apple’s 8-bit technology.

Another kind of compatibility--that would allow machines of different manufacturers to communicate with one another--is likely to become a more pressing issue as schools begin to link their personal computers in local-area networks. On that front, however, standardization appears to be moving forward.

Responding to the demand from the business market, 20 large computer corporations last month met for the first time to encourage the introduction of equipment adhering to accepted international communications standards.

The 20 firms have formed a nonprofit company, the Corporation for Open Systems, that will work to “allow computer-based components made by different manufacturers to work together as an integrated information- sharing system,” according to Robert B. Farkas, a spokesman for NCR Corporation, a charter member of COS.

But for the immediate future, Anne Wujcik, director of educational research for Talmis Inc., predicts a “period of consolidation over the next several years.”

“The market has changed dramatically in the past five years,” she said. “At this point, almost every school district has a plan for computer use, but they need to be revised to reflect their experience.”

She predicted that school administrators would restrain their fascination with the newer technologies, and would “wait and watch what the engineers are doing.”

“Schools have learned that it’s not a wise use of their money to experiment with new technology,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 1986 edition of Education Week