Several years from now, a few old-timers in the school field might ask each other, Whatever became of Apple? Remember Apple?

Once the undisputed, highly innovative leader in K-12 computing, Apple likely will have faded from the school scene like some old soldier–a veteran remembered fondly, not dead exactly, just lost in shadow, irrelevant now, a fading relic of bygone glory.

If those old-timers cared to note the beginning of the last phases of Apple in K-12 education, they might mark Feb. 22, 1999. To be sure, Apple’s image in education had begun to pale sometime ago. But it was during the 131st annual conference of the American Association of School Administrators in New Orleans that Apple’s demise probably became irreversible.

When Bill Gates rolled out the lumberingly labeled “School Interoperability Framework” (SIF), he gave a good example of why he’s the richest man in the solar system. And he might also, indirectly, have shed a little light on why he was turning up at AASA one year late. (Last year, you might recall, he had a date with an antitrust investigation, and it still drags on.)

As our Page One story and our eSN Special Report suggest, SIF fundamentally is a reprise writ small of the entire Microsoft saga.

SIF is a variation on what Gates has done better than anybody right from the start. Almost since he quit showing up for class at Harvard, Gates has understood that the most vexing thing about technology is incompatibility.

You hear about the wonders of technology. Then you gradually overcome your aversion to computers. You begin to grasp the liberating possibilities of automating mundane tasks, become a power user, envision the immense potential of combining multiple systems to leverage productivity . . . and then it hits you.

You can’t do that. Nope. No way. The separate little automated fiefdoms of your system don’t get along. The computers won’t talk to one another. You’re stuck.

For consumers, Microsoft has changed all that. At the desktop, for the general technology consumer, compatibility problems have pretty much been resolved. Reason: Microsoft has won the war.

Now, Microsoft is on the march once more. Windows 2000, by most accounts, will aim to spread the Microsoft hegemony beyond the desktop into the enterprise network. Even before that, though, Gates and his SIF partners have set about to bring compatibility to all the “mission-critical, enterprise-wide applications” of your school district.

According to Gates, “PCs connected to the internet, reliable eMail, easy-to-use productivity software, and powerful database and business applications” will form the basis of the new school network. It will give schools “a digital nervous system,” as Gates styles it. What a happy day awaits us all.

And guess what: If all the essential districtwide computing is done by the bosses on PCs, the long-term prospects for Apple anywhere in the K-12 field are, well . . . hard to see.