Software maker offers new life to old school computers: New solution makes machines as old as 286 into Windows-like terminals

If you’ve ever bemoaned how quickly state-of-the-art applications turn once-pricey school computers into obsolete doorstops, a company in Cambridge, Mass. claims to have just the solution you need.

New Deal Inc. says it can turn obsolete PCs into viable machines with its SchoolSuite 98 software package. SchoolSuite 98 consists of integrated applications that run in a Windows-like environment but require only a tenth of the hard disk space of Windows, enabling students to create documents and spreadsheets, surf the web, and send and receive eMail–all from a machine as old as a 286.

“We provide a leading-edge technology for lagging-edge platforms,” declared Clive Smith, New Deal’s chief executive officer.

SchoolSuite’s applications need only 640 KB of RAM and 9 MB of hard drive space, he said, yet they include a desktop manager, graphical web browser, word processor, and spreadsheet.

SchoolSuite 98 supports multitasking, desktop publishing, networking, standard office applications, internet browsing, eMail, and school curriculum programs, and its point-and-click interface and drag-and-drop capabilities mirror–and in some cases surpass–those of Windows, Smith said.

Its browser won’t support plug-ins or JavaScript, but it can get students on the internet to do just about everything else the latest versions of Netscape and Internet Explorer can do, he said.

“You don’t need a Ferrari to go to the grocery store–and you don’t need a Pentium PC to teach word processing or web browsing to a seventh grader,” Smith said. “But this is not for you if you need advanced capabilities like data mining or interactive multimedia.”

For schools with limited resources, New Deal offers SchoolSuite 98 as a workable solution.

Saving donated machines

New Deal’s software is based on the GEOS operating system developed by the Alameda, Calif.-based company Geoworks. GEOS was originally developed for the Commodore computer and the IBM PC, but the product was shelved in 1994 as Microsoft went on to dominate the operating system market.

Now, New Deal has revived the technology in an attempt to lower the student-to-computer ratio. By creating “smarter software” instead of more sophisticated programs, Smith said, New Deal hopes to give students who might not otherwise have access to technology the chance to become computer literate.

There are 51 million public school students in grades K-12, he said, but only 8.4 million computers. Most of those computers are concentrated in upper- or middle-class districts. Yet there are tens of millions of 286 and 386 PCs that have been retired from active use, and thousands of computer refurbishers in the U.S. to fix them, Smith pointed out.

“If we can turn those PCs into viable solutions,” he said, “then we can lower the student-to-computer ratio and also close the technology access gap.”

Computer donation programs, like the Detwiler Foundation and the federal government’s Computers for Learning project, are helping to close the gap–but schools have been hesitant to accept obsolete machines in the past.

To change that, New Deal is working with several PC refurbishers, including Detwiler, to supply them with its software, which is then bundled with the donated machines.

Tip Kilby, executive director of Tech Corps Georgia, said the group has been using New Deal software in its computer refurbishing program exclusively since July 1997 and is delighted with the results. “New Deal did something that I thought was impossible: turning old 286 and 386 PCs into graphical Windows-like machines,” Kilby said.

Students using New Deal’s software also find it easy to transition to other platforms, Kilby said.

Other refurbishers who use SchoolSuite 98 include the National Cristina Foundation, Computers 4 Kids, and the East West Foundation, Smith said.

According to Smith, U.S. corporations retire an estimated 7 million computers per year. Given the gap that still exists in access to technology, it would be a shame not to put those computers to use, he argued.

“The combination of older computers and smarter software is not a ‘magic bullet’ that solves all computer and access problems,” Smith said. “But it is a solution that dramatically expands the number of students who can achieve computer and internet literacy now.”

It doesn’t have to be either-or, he added. School districts can build their inventory of computers even more quickly by purchasing new machines for use in classrooms requiring more advanced applications, while also accepting older equipment from computer refurbishers for use in classrooms needing only basic applications.

“The fastest and most cost-effective way to increase computer and internet access is through a complementary approach that combines the purchase of new PCs while tapping into the multimillion-unit pool of older computers available from corporations and government agencies,” Smith said.

SchoolSuite 98 is available to schools and districts with a number of licensing options, Smith said. A building-site license costs $595, he reported, and district licenses are priced by workstation.

New Deal Inc.

Detwiler Foundation

Computers for Learning

Tech Corps Georgia

National Cristina Foundation

Computers 4 Kids

East West Foundation

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