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Colleges to give Windows top billing

Microsoft positions itself to become the dominant software supplier for the huge California State University system.

Microsoft is quietly positioning itself to become the dominant application software, operating system, and browser supplier for California State University, the world's largest higher-education system, according to angry teachers and competitors.

The deal, expected to be signed in late January, could anoint the so-called California Education Technology Initiative (CETI) as a proposed "limited liability corporation" consisting of Microsoft, GTE, Fujitsu, Hughes Electronics, and the California State University system. The consortium could spend an initial $300 million during the next three years to upgrade and expand the current "baseline" technology infrastructure for all 22 campuses by the year 2000.

The final business agreement, which will be released December 15, could last as long as a decade, possibly making Windows the favored operating system and Internet Explorer the primary Web browser for the university, according to some educators and Microsoft foes. The spokeswoman for the initiative did not say whether products from non-partner manufacturers would be phased out.

"Microsoft is an octopus. Once they are in control they will promote their own business efforts instead of what is best for academia," said Jim Smith, communications director of the California Faculty Association, which represents CSU teachers. "This issue has caused more of an uproar than anything else in recent years. The faculty is concerned that they will be required to teach specific technology-based lesson plans or use specific products in the classroom."

The California system is the latest in a string of universities turning to Microsoft for their high technology. Last month, Yale University told incoming freshmen that it might not be able to offer support for Macintoshes because of the growing demand for support for Windows-based PCs.

Protests over such agreements reflect growing allegations among antitrust regulators, consumer groups, and business rivals that Microsoft has engaged in unfair business practices. The Justice Department last month charged that the software giant violated a 1995 court order by requiring PC makers to distribute its Internet Explorer browser as a condition for obtaining licenses for its Windows 95 operating system.

According to the CSU invitation, the four companies including Microsoft will be the "exclusive providers of technology" to give students and faculty better access to the university system's intranet, the Internet, desktop computers, and software programs that are standard throughout the campuses. CETI also plans to provide training and technical support, in part by using the CSU's existing $120 million budget.

CETI says it will support Macintosh, Unix, and Windows operating systems. Microsoft maintains that "complete freedom of choice" remains for faculty and students, but critics charge that this liberty may eventually apply only to existing equipment.

The infrastructure team was chosen after business propositions were submitted in June. The nine criteria for being selected included "operational and financial stability," "technologies represented," "California presence," and "quality of the team assembled by the partner."

Those that didn't make the cut include Ericsson, Westinghouse Communications, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Cisco, IBM, Pacific Bell, AT&T, Lucent Technologies, ITC Learning Corporation, MCI, and Hewlett-Packard. Companies had to generate at least $4 billion in annual revenue to be considered.

Proponents, such as CSU chancellor Barry Munitz and many university presidents, say professors will still have academic freedom, and that the CETI partnership will simply provide money to retrain staff and get students the high-tech tools they will use in college and the workforce.

"The partnership will provide what the campuses want," said Patricia Cuocco, senior director of information technology policy and analysis for the CSU system. "It is very difficult for me to say that we would restrict schools to using Internet Explorer or Windows. But will it be financially attractive to use a standard? Probably."

Critics say that is exactly what will happen, given that the CETI partners are admittedly working to create new revenue streams from this deal. "We anticipate that our partners will make money and that the CSU will generate revenue," Cuocco said.

For example, CSU "would assist its business partner in leveraging access to its students, faculty, staff, and other constituents for the purpose of providing high-quality, reasonably priced telecommunications services," according to the university system's request for proposals.

In its business plan, the GTE Team outlined 50 "revenue-producing services," including the development of educational content such as the "CSU Virtual University." Dubbed the Flagship 50, another moneymaking idea was to sell students and faculty high-speed Net access, on top of the free service offered by various campuses.

The forces gearing up to stop the plan agree that the CSU is in dire need of a technological face-lift. But Academic Senates up and down the state oppose the current plan, charging that it limits choice and was allegedly drafted in secret, with little or no input from educators. Some fear the companies will begin shaping curricula through their products.

Others wonder why the pool of vendors is so small. Education technology veteran Apple Computer didn't make the top 14 finalists, and some sources say it wasn't even invited to the table. An Apple spokesman would say only: "Apple is now working with the management of the consortium to see how Apple would work into their plans."

The 54-member Academic Senate at Silicon Valley's own San Jose State University unanimously approved a resolution earlier this month expressing deep concerns about CETI. The Academic Senate declared it had "no confidence in the process" used to formulate the business plan.

The CSU Board has agreed to push the public comment deadline back to January 27 because of the controversy, but educators at San Jose State and other universities say they haven't even seen the final proposal.

Kenneth Peter, chair of San Jose State's Academic Senate, charged that the deal is unethical as it now stands. "What would be the profit motivation for Microsoft if all members of CSU could still purchase any software they wanted?" Peter said. "Students could be harmed if it results in limited choices, or if it means they are part of an institution that has compromised its ethics."

Microsoft claims that the CSU system will be dominated by its products only if that is what the staff and students demand. "In every case, the objective is to build upon the technology assets already in place," a spokeswoman said today. "At the campus, department, and individual level, complete freedom of choice remains in the selection of software tools used to support instructional use."

Microsoft competitors say the CETI situation just another feather in the software giant's hat.

"The big risk of CETI is that it's not just about getting advanced computers and communications into our state's classrooms; it is about locking the California education system into a radically different model," said Peter Harter, global public policy counsel for Netscape Communications, which said it was not invited to negotiate with the CSU.

"It is a clear signal that Microsoft plans to embrace and extend itself into the education market," he added. "Microsoft's involvement is a threat to consumer choice."