Despite the fall-off in other markets, those selling technology to schools and colleges are still smiling. Technology companies at last week's BETT show in London, the annual conference for education and technology, said that government spending on technology appeared unchanged, and that orders for hardware and software were buoyant.
Although a large number of small-scale software and hardware suppliers (650 attended the show) continue to make a decent living selling specialist educational products into the sector, the signs are that in terms of technology, schools and colleges are looking more and more like conventional business operations. Like mainstream business, education is buying wireless networks, web-based services, and is taking a closer look at virtualisation.
At the exhibition, Jim Knight, schools minister, said that the UK continued to lead the way in showing how technology could be used in schools, citing the earlier Learning and Technology World forum, attended by 63 education ministers from around the globe.
According to Knight, 97% of UK schools have a broadband connection, more than half of classrooms have an interactive whiteboard, and the ratio of computers to pupils is 1:6, compared to 1:19 a decade ago.
He added that 90% of teenagers in England have a home computer, a mobile phone and a games console. 1.4 million pupils have their own web page.
Knight said he intended to increase the use of computer at home by pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and would encourage parents to interact with schools through the web.
He said he would set up a "Home Access Taskforce", chaired by him, that would build on work already done by Intel, RM and Dell.
"I want this to bring together key industry players, the voluntary sector, and education representatives to look at the issues," he said.
Many in the industry will be hoping that pupils and their families will buy netbook type devices for use at home and in school. They were much in evidence in the show, with Elonex launching a £99 Linux-based device, and Toshiba launching the 8.9-inch NB100 for £219.
RM, which started the netbook rush last year with its £169 RM Asus minibook launch, said that it had sold 48,000 devices - a figure in line with what it had estimated 12 months ago.
"Now everyone has a version of a netbook, pricing is all over the place. The prices seem to be moving up towards where notebooks where," said Ian Skeels, RM head of digital marketing.
CMS director Rob Jones, launching a convertible version of the Intel Classmate netbook called the Fizzbook, said he expected to sell 8,000-10,000 units a month by the end of the year. The convertible version has a swivelling screen, allowing the unit to be used in tablet mode, with a touch screen, and hand-writing recognition.
At the launch Intel said the retail price for the XPPro version of the device would be about £330; Jones said a Schools Agreement price would see schools paying about £60 less.
Schools should have the budget to buy the devices, according to BESA, the British Educational Suppliers Association. A typical primary school ICT budget is anticipated to be £15,850 in 2009-10, while secondary spend is set to increase to £68,000, representing an increase of 6.2% and 4.0%, respectively.
Spend on ICT from school budgets is estimated to be about £672m in 2009-10.
Of course, increased sales of netbook devices will mean that sales of laptops and desktop are likely to suffer, but schools like the devices as they can equip more pupils with a computing device - a classroom of 30 netbooks might cost £6,000, but 30 laptops double the amount.
Other competitors for the classroom budget are the well-established interactive whiteboard offerings from Steljes and Promethean.
Both suppliers are hoping that schools can be persuaded to increase their spend on classroom hardware by linking interactive whiteboards to response systems, audio systems and their own content-rich software applications.
"We are launching an 87-inch, widescreen board with a widescreen projector, the PRM20, which is an opportunity for driving up the value of a sale by putting a new board into schools used to the smaller 78-inch standard," said Ian Curtis, Promethean's new head of UK and Ireland operations.
Curtis also announced that distributor Maverick would take responsibility for servicing 340 Promethean resellers, as part of its decision to move to a channel-based distribution model announced last year.
Steljes' product marketing director, Graham Wylie, wore a new bracelet at the show, actually a portable, 2GB USB memory stick, designed to allow students to take all their class work and Smart application software home with them.
He said that there were good margin opportunities for resellers able to build on the large installed base of Smart whiteboards in schools, estimated at 61% by FutureSource Consulting.
"Demand for complementary products will remain high, with visualisers [a device for projecting real objects placed on a screen] growing by more than 60%, and response systems by more than 40%," he predicted.
As more and more students and pupils are encouraged to carry laptops and mobile devices around colleges and schools, suppliers have seen an increase in demand for wireless networking.
Mark Power, wireless security specialist at reseller Net-Ctrl says that a 1,000 student secondary schools might spend anywhere between £9,000 and £13,000 on a wireless system, and likes the fact that wireless gives better control of viruses.
"Schools do not know what is on students' laptops. But if students connect to a wireless network, they cannot stop the school from running," he says.
Power favours Ruckus Wireless technology because it allows him to compete favourably on price - he says that a Ruckless Wireless product set will allow him to offer 25 to 35 wireless access points to connect an average campus, compared with 45 to 60 access points from competing wireless products.
He also likes selling Ruckus to schools because he is able to offer a free trial of the kit before schools have to commit to buying it.
"Providing reliable Wi-Fi for so many different devices at the same time really highlights the inadequacy of consumer solutions - which most schools have relied on until recently," comments Jim Calderbank, director of enterprise sales at Ruckus.
Other suppliers have noted a move towards business-like applications. Dan Power, managing director of systems appliance vendor KACE, says that his company's Kbox appliance helps school IT staff to manage classrooms full of networked PCs from a central location.
"It is quite common for schools to have just two or three IT staff looking at 400 to 500 machines. In commercial environment you would expect to see seven to nine people looking after a similar number of machines," he says.
By plugging in the Kbox, which costs about £20,000 to £25,000 for a large secondary school, IT administrators should be able to check schools PC for software licence compliance, for inventory purpose and for discovering whether a PC has been disconnected from the schools network when it should not have been.
"The Kbox helps administrators to rebuild the software on PCs - we have noticed that one of the challenges schools face is that they often have a mass of software - certain teachers will have discretionary budgets to buy the latest piece of software for Keystage Level 2 maths, for example," says Power.
Atkins Management Consultants told a seminar at BETT that schools were now ready to buy virtualisation products that would allow them to run screens managed from a central location, rather than classroom-based desktop PCs.
"Thin-client technology has been around for years but has not caught on in education because traditional thin-client applications have not been able to run the rich, multi-media graphical applications that schools expect to see on a network," says Brian McIntyre, a managing consultant with Atkins.
"Virtualisation provides all of the advantages of traditional thin-client computing as well a 'personal computer' for each user that can be accessed anywhere on the school network or from home over the internet.
"Think of it as a 1:1 student to computer ratio, without needing 1:1 physical devices," says McIntyre.
The company has installed 400 client machines at the recently opened Wren Academy in Finchley, London using Wyse TCX thin-client virtualiser technology.
"Schools designed for the Building Schools for the Future programme are interested in this technology because engineers are under pressure to increase the energy efficiency of buildings.
"They have to be passively cooled as much as possible. They do not want PCs using 200 watts and throwing out excessive heat," says McIntyre.
Thin-client virtualised screens are much more energy efficient than networked PCs.
Other major players have sensed that as computing becomes more sophisticated in schools, so do the selling opportunities.
Mark Duffelen, the newly appointed managing Xerox's UK office division, says that £100,000 contracts can be negotiated with large colleges and universities.
"We think we can drive between 20 and 30% saving on print by looking at existing printers and rationalising their use.
"There are big opportunities in the education market - there has been a lot of focus in driving down the costs from procurement in general but we do not think the holistic cost of documents has been properly analysed," he says.
Xerox has negotiated schools deals worth between £5,000 and £10,000 for sales of printer and multi-function devices. In larger deals with UK universities, Xerox has added £200,000 worth of print management services to the value of equipment sales, spread over three to four years.
Similarly large-scale contracts have been a feature of the schools information management market, a market long dominated by Capita's SIMs product. Pearson Phoenix, a rival supplier, recruited its new sales and marketing director Khurshid Khan from Capita six months ago.
"The information management market for schools remains attractive because a lot of what the government is trying to do is analyse trends. MIS is not so much about administration anymore, but about how a school performs against strategic objectives - much as information management is used in the commercial sector," he says.
Khan says that the "Every Child Matters" government initiative gives software suppliers more scope to sell products that show how a pupil is progressing against targets, rather than leaving reports until the end of year, when it is too late to intervene, he says.
Pearson Phoenix is promoting its web-based information management product called E1, and expects to have 750 schools signed up this year.
"We are saying to schools that with the web-based product you can make a potential saving of between 25% and 50% on the costs associated with a server-based product," he says.
Smaller suppliers have found niches giving classroom teachers more information about individual pupil progress.
"The big information management systems do a lot of assessment. We offer a classroom based on-line mark book which allows teachers to plan and monitor pupils' progress, using a simple red, amber and green traffic light scheme," says Chris Scarth, commercial director of Prime Principle, which has sold the web-based Classroom Monitor software application to 1,100 primary schools since its launch in 2004.
As well as management systems the show boasted the latest in innovation. For schools with a spare £8,000, the Microsoft Surface table computer on display at the RM stand looks impressive. It allows users to sit around a 30-inch tabletop screen and manipulate applications by hand.
Applications are, admittedly, thin on the ground, but RM demonstrated a pilot language application which encouraged children to complete words by moving letters around the screen with their fingers.
Steljes' Wylie thinks touch-driven, table computer are the way forward - Steljes is promoting the £5,500 Smart Table, a smaller table-top computer sold with developed educational software.
"Students using it have to reach collaborative decisions as a group," he says.
The Smart Table will not be available till spring, but Wylie likes it because it is the kind of high ticket item that resellers relish.
Whether schools will buy it is another matter: they could, after all, buy two new interactive whiteboards with super-short-throw projectors, or 13 of RM's new ED-E humanoid robots for the price of one Smart Table.
The technology available for schools looks ever more tempting, but the choices are getting harder.