What impact will Gordon Brown's plan for free laptops have on the UK?

Amid stories this week of Google's battle with China, China hitting back and the ICO getting ready to fine half a million pounds for data loss, the big story from Monday has been rather forgotten.

At the start of the week we reported on a Government plan to distribute 270,000 laptops to low income families in order to help them access their children's school reports online, and ultimately let them learn from online content.

While a political issue, and one that may not meet the projected target of being rolled out to all secondary schools by 2010 and all primary schools by 2012 depending on electoral results this year, it does have plenty of sense. After all, if the Digital Britain report is to become a reality, it needs the population to be online in the first place.

In general the response from the security industry has been positive, and those companies that I spoke to believed that this was a good thing. Stephen Midgley, vice president of Absolute Software, said that he believed the announcement ‘does help bridge the growing digital divide experienced in most industrialised countries amongst low income groups'.

He referred to a similar initative in the US called ‘one-to-one', a program designed to equip school children with IT hardware. Midgley said: “It is an important initiative, but the challenge is that this is an educational component and people need to be educated on how to protect their data.

“There are two types of protection when it comes to laptops- the physical protection of the lock and cable which is more of a visual deterrent but is not foolproof, and the second is having the technology on the device so if it is stolen it sends a signal back, which would be big in the Government's case as they will want to show that they can reunite that laptop with the owner, because if this leads to a lot of laptop theft it will not make the Government too happy.”

Ian Ryder, deputy chief executive at the Chartered Institute for IT, said: “We welcome any attempt to help families on low incomes make the most of this tremendous opportunity to become active digital citizens.

“For example, being able to shop or pay your bills online or check what your child's homework is for the week via your home computer is a real benefit being enjoyed by millions of people, but many are still missing out. Even just being able to research the lowest-cost source for everyday goods and services would be a huge benefit to those currently excluded from this technology.

“Our recently launched Savvy Citizens programme is wholly aimed at helping all citizens benefit from our information society and ensuring families are equipped and able to get online is a necessary but difficult step at a national level; we applaud the Government's efforts to do this through this scheme.”

Also, Tristan Wilkinson, a member of the digital inclusion taskforce and head of public sector at Intel EMEA, said that the announcement is a step in the right direction and that it fully supported the Government's commitment to give access to technology to some of the most disadvantaged segments of society.

He said: “But we need to act quickly and much more work needs to be done if we are to deliver the benefits of technology to all of the 1.3 million low income families that are in need of assistance, to enable those children to reach their full potential.

“There is a clear and proven linkage today that access to technology can improve the educational outcomes for many children and that to deny that opportunity to low income families can have the adverse effect and make entering the workplace even harder.”

However in contrast to Intel's determination to get the plan moving was Sunbelt Software, whose sales director EMEA, David Parkin, welcomed the intention but warned that it should not be entered into without due consideration and planning.

He said: “A distribution of technology to consumers on such a scale is not just a matter of buying hardware and shipping it out to families. The software on those machines needs to be fit for purpose and reliable.

“That means choosing a robust operating system, suitable applications for education, and security software to keep users safe from malware, spam and inappropriate content, as well as ensuring that these laptops do not infect other networked machines when they are taken into schools and colleges.

“Machines that are unstable or susceptible to malware will not only hamper the educational boost the Government is trying to deliver, but will also create a support and security overhead that will be both expensive and difficult to manage for either the school the laptop user is attending, the local education authority or council, or indeed central Government. As the provider of these laptops, government will ultimately be expected to maintain them through some form of support contract, at least in the short term.”

The question of software, operating systems and security is one that does need serious consideration – after all what are the chances that they will be Windows 7 equipped with the latest SC recommended 'Best Buy' security suite? There is of course the other side of the coin, where the computers will arrive completely unprotected, or with bundled security software that may not be initialised.

I talked to Luis Corrons, technical director of PandaLabs, who offered a survey last year that revealed 22 per cent of companies either do not have, or do not know if they have, any security solutions in place.

I asked him what software he expected them to be running. He said that he ‘presumed that those computers will be running Linux, unless the taxpayers in the UK want to pay also for the operating system and some other software packages'.

He said: “In case they include Windows it would be better to have a free anti-virus package from a big vendor, rather than a trial version. If these computers are for people that cannot afford a £200 netbook, they won't be buying a licence later, so a trial version is useless. It is as if the computer comes with a trial Microsoft Office version, wouldn't it make more sense if it has some kind of free office software, such as Star office?”

As it seems that the general consensus is that laptops will be chosen, I caught up with a major name in the sector to gauge their opinion. Asus recently launched new netbooks at the CES International show, including the Karim Rashid Eee PC Seashell 1008P Collection and the Eee PC Seashell 1005PE that integrates the new Intel Atom N450 processor with Windows 7, Express Gate and Super Hybrid Engine. Meanwhile the NX90 notebook featured audio designed by Bang & Olufsen.

Marketing representative John Swatton, who has worked in IT for about 14 years, explained that his previous job was in OEM in a public sector where there was a scheme of laptops for teachers, which was a huge success.

He said: “In these cases you can be given a pot of money and be allowed to choose what you want, and once you are on the list you are able to bid with your technologies.

“Here a company may offer one type that will be around and useful in three years and another may offer more computers but with a specification that will be obsolete in 18 months. This can lead to a laptop that will not be used and will be left in the cupboard.”

He believed that one way to get around the possible ‘one size fits all' concept is to give families a voucher that they take to a store and they can choose from a range of pre-selected companies.

Swatton said: “My belief is that they have to have broadband enabled, software and anti-virus, and the idea is that it will be a PC, laptop or netbook, whatever they want, but they have the flexibility to choose the device.”

He said that he was in favour of the scheme, as ultimately it is helping children with access to homework, to access the curriculum online or download a lesson.

“Every local authority is different – some may hand them out and say there you go, some may have open evenings where the supplier presents to parents. It is a very positive scheme, there is no doubt about it,” said Swatton.

“Children who have access to IT have an advantage according to a BBC report I read, and they get connected to social networking and online content, it improves literacy and writing skills, they will definitely be at an advantage.”

Obviously the actions of voters may decide if this plan does come to fruition, but the overall response is one that is generally positive. Naturally it is important that the new owners take responsibility for their new possession and there needs to be assurances that the computers are protected, secure and recorded.

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