Microsoft Tests Tool For Computer Classrooms

Shared Computer Toolkit helps administrators erase downloaded programs and restore deleted files.
PC users who share machines in classrooms and libraries risk leaving their files exposed or logging on to a system slowed by reckless downloads. Now, Microsoft is entering the market for software to clean up and lock down shared PCs.

Microsoft on Tuesday began publicly testing software due in time for the back-to-school season that it says would make it easier for teachers, librarians, and other people with minimal IT training to manage groups of PCs in schools and public libraries. The Shared Computer Toolkit would let administrators erase stored passwords and lists of recently used files, restore deleted files, wipe away downloaded software, and turn on accessibility features using simpler controls.

The software, designed to manage PCs running Windows XP with Service Pack 2, aims to expose Windows' management features to teachers and other people without IT training, Microsoft said at the National Educational Computing Conference in Philadelphia.

"Windows was designed for personal use," says John Eversole, a Microsoft product manager. "It's harder to set up in a shared environment." The company became aware of the need to develop a management tool for shared PCs in part by talking to rural librarians who have received donations of PCs over the past several years from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he says. In addition, while large schools have trained IT staff to manage their PCs, smaller schools often put a teacher in charge of the computer lab. Setting up machines so users can't make harmful changes often involves an advanced knowledge of Windows, Eversole says. With its upcoming product, "we're trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator," he says.

The Shared Computer Toolkit includes three main features:

  • A tool to restrict changes to Windows' control panel and wipe away evidence of recently visited Web sites, recent documents, and stored passwords.
  • A disk-protection utility to reverse changes to a computer's hard disk such as installed programs or deleted files when the PC restarts.
  • A check-box user interface that makes it easier to turn on accessibility options such as a screen magnifier and large fonts from one place in Windows.

The toolkit can also save remote administrators in rural areas from having to drive to a school to manage its machines, Microsoft says. A beta version of the software is available at Microsoft hasn't set pricing for the final version, due later this summer.

Other software companies already sell products with similar functionality. Faronics Corp., for example, says its Deep Freeze software is used to protect more than 5 million PCs from unauthorized downloads and changes to settings.

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