The Mac Factor: Time to Let the Big One Go!
Some people are under the impression that all that is required to make a good fisherman is the ability to tell lies easily and without blushing; but this is a mistake. Mere bald fabrication is useless; the veriest tyro can manage that. It is in the circumstantial detail, the embellishing touches of probability, the general air of scrupulous—almost of pedantic—veracity, that the experienced angler is seen.
—Three Men in a Boat, ch. 17 (1889) (1), by Jerome K. Jerome (1859?1927), British author.
Today’s tall tales are told by ‘technical anglers’ or ‘tanglers’ and they unabashedly shower the unsuspecting observer with circumstantial detail about the speed of a processor, the width of a data bus, the exhilarating impact of the latest graphics accelerator, the ‘cool’ new version of Windows, and/or the overwhelming number of software titles available for ‘their’ recommended system. The tanglers won’t tell you about the system crashes, the incompatibilities, the hours and hours it takes to upgrade hardware and software, or the almost incomprehensible slew of error messages that accompanies practically every change they make to their system.
The technical tall tales combined with disingenuous coverage of Windows problems by the media adds enormous confusion to the market. Every prospective buyer, including universities and K-12 schools, must attempt to find a reliable source of advice that can ‘untangle’ all of this misinformation. My purpose in writing this column is to provide an unbiased, factual, and understandable discussion of the issues involved in the educational procurement of technology. With the presidential goal of universal student access to the Internet by the Year 2000, it’s increasingly important to ‘let the big one go,’ and make procurement decisions based on the best information available.
This paper will examine the facts related to these issues in some detail citing data compiled by the leading research organizations in the industry (2). Specific arguments will be presented concerning compatibility, cost considerations, and the capability of the Macintosh both as a standalone and as a network computer.
A few years back, “empowerment” was the ‘buzz word’ that resonated through educational circles. Teachers were in the business of ‘empowering’ students by providing the opportunity to learn, the tools to learn, and a positive, proactive learning atmosphere.
Empowerment was a concept that schools could embrace because it was achievable and because it placed some responsibility on the student to participate in the process.
Though perhaps not as much of a trendy term as before, ‘empowerment’ is a concept that is still very much with us. The job of an educational technologist (ET), for example, is to empower teachers and students to use technology to access and process information. In an ideal world, an experienced ET might play a pivotal role in providing advice to educational decision-makers during a hardware or software procurement. Given empowerment as the goal, such advice would inevitably lead to the purchase of systems that are the easiest to use and maintain.
Alas, we don’t live in an ideal world. Technology procurement decisions are often made by chancellors, superintendents, and principals with minimal technical knowledge or experience. They often rely on ‘self-styled experts’ in the ‘Management Information Systems’ office for advice, and many of the ‘experts’ have little or no insight into the educational use of computer technology. In fact, the background and experience of these advisors may predispose them to give faulty advice.
Micro-bigotry ? A Source of MISinformation?
Micro-bigotry has been around since the first microcomputers were introduced and stems at least in part from the overwhelming intellectual and sometimes emotional commitment a user makes to a particular system in order to use and master it. Indeed, there were Apple II, Atari, and even Radio Shack bigots. Using these machines required learning arcane operating system commands, and expanding them required ‘getting your hands dirty’ by removing the cover and inserting boards, wires, and sometimes even individual chips. It was all so… white, so middle class, and so macho! Each group considered their system superior to others in the industry and the more success users felt in mastering their micros, the more isolated they became.
Today, the microcomputer world is arguably divided into two camps. The Windows/Intel (WINTEL) machines dominate the market and purport to provide the user access to most of the software originally developed for the Macintosh. The Mac is also back and stronger than ever, Apple having introduced not only a new and improved Mac OS, but a full-powered and inexpensive version of the original Macintosh paradigm, the iMac.
There are still ‘bigots’ in both camps and they continually confuse procurement issues. Some make decisions on poor or little information, while others find solace in ad hominem attacks on users with alternative viewpoints. Micro-bigotry, however, often rears its ugly head like most bigotry. There’s no open discussion of issues. Instead, there’s a nod, nod, wink, wink… and suddenly a particular system is no longer considered acceptable. This process could have been observed at a number of universities who recently decided to recommend Windows equipment to incoming freshmen and to phase out support for the minority Mac.
Lost in “the circumstantial detail”
I’ve worked with PCs and Macs in an educational environment for over ten years. During that period, I’ve installed dozens of networks with workstations supporting three different versions of Windows. I’ve also expanded workstations to support multimedia add-ons like CD -ROM drives, sound cards, and a variety of video boards. I’ve dealt with hardware problems, software problems, security problems, user training, upgrades, sidegrades, emulators, translators, and the finest utility software in the land.
There is a dirty little secret that I need to share with you. Windows is broken. It doesn’t work as advertised and it particularly doesn’t work well in an educational environment. This is no secret to those of us who have tried to make it work, but it is a secret in the sense that you don’t read about the myriad problems in the popular computer press. There is almost a conspiracy of silence (3) about the mess that we’ve been left in by our friends in Redmond.
Specifically, we now have four versions of Windows installed in schools: Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows NT. Individually, each of these systems has significant problems with system freezes, innocuous error messages, memory conflicts, and so on. Attempting to move software or data between these systems is a virtual nightmare. Attempting to upgrade hardware to support the latest releases is almost prohibitively complex. Trying to effectively support different versions of Windows in an educational environment is practically a non-starter, and dealing with Windows security issues over a network is a full-time job.
The discovery of truth is prevented more effectively, not by the false appearance things present and which mislead into error, not directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice. (4)
“the general air of scrupulous—almost of pedantic—veracity”
The micro-bigots have resorted to one or more subtle variations of the following themes to affectively exclude the Mac from some school procurements:
The technology in the schools should mirror the technology in business so that kids can translate their training and experience into immediate benefits when they leave school.
If 90% of computer users work with Windows, then it must be okay.
There’s more software out there for Windows-based systems.
The Macintosh is incompatible with the management systems we have in place.
The Mac can’t be expanded like the PC and therefore can’t be used for multimedia production.
Most software development is done on the PC.
If Apple goes out of business, the selection of Macintosh-based systems will be a disaster.
No one has ever been fired for buying IBM (or, by extension, PC compatibles).
The dangerous aspects of these themes is that like the ‘big fish’ story, they each contain an element of the truth and thus are ultimately believable to those who are uninformed and/or rely on ‘computer experts’ for advice. And like the snake that devours its own tail, the pursuit of PC technology feeds on itself as schools strive to upgrade systems, purchase ‘compatible’ hardware, install the latest 32-bit software, support multimedia, and cope with the latest version of Microsoft Windows or its most recent ‘Utility Pack.’
There are three compelling reasons why schools should drop the technology fishing expedition and opt for Macintosh technology:
The Macintosh is easier to use (compatibility and capability);
The Macintosh is cheaper to buy and cheaper to support (costs);
The Macintosh provides students more accessible power in terms of information retrieval and processing (capability and connectivity).
Prejudices are so to speak the mechanical instincts of men: through their prejudices they do without any effort many things they would find too difficult to think through to the point of resolving to do them. (5)
Compatibility, Costs, Capability, and Connectivity
Contrary to MIS arguments, the Macintosh is compatible with Windows-based software; cheaper to install, maintain, upgrade, and support; and more capable than equivalent Windows-based systems.
Compatibility with Educational Software
Apple is the leading seller of information technology to schools and, therefore, the majority of educational software companies develop software for the Macintosh platform. Two-thirds of all educational software titles run on Apple computers, and the Mac OS leads Windows in the number of educational software titles for all grade levels and subject areas (6).
Compatibility with older Macintosh and Apple IIGS software
Unlike new Windows-based systems, the iMac can happily run software developed years ago. There’s also Apple IIGS emulation software available that will allow your Mac to take advantage of most of the software developed for that machine. Meanwhile, the Windows world is plagued by incompatibilities between evolving 32-bit system software and older, 16-bit applications.
Compatibility with PC disks and PC data files
The optional IMATION floppy drive works like all Macintosh floppies in that it will recognize and mount PC formatted disks. The Mac has had this capability built into its System software for years. Since the programs most frequently used in a Windows environment were first released for the Macintosh, Mac applications have very few problems opening and translating Windows data files.
Compatibility with PC software
There are two robust Windows emulators available for the Macintosh that run all major Windows programs. The Mac can, in fact, run both the Mac OS and Windows simultaneously, and cut and paste information between applications in both operating systems.
Compatibility with Novell Netware
PCs and Macs can coexist quite happily on a Novell LAN, and the Mac desktops can be individually tailored using At Ease for Workgroups—an elegant desktop security system in comparison to the confusing and often unpredictable profile management tools available with Windows.
Compatibility with Multimedia Equipment
Ease of upgrading to multimedia was rated very good to best by most schools using the Macintosh platform compared to only 37% for schools using Wintel PCs (7). Upgrading older PC hardware to support multimedia applications can be a technical nightmare. Older Macs, on the other hand, can be expanded via their Small Computer System Interface (SCSI) to support several peripherals.
Windows Compatibility issues
There are significantly more compatibility problems between PCs running various versions of Windows than there are between the Mac and the PC.
Windows Reliability Problems
Windows NT 4.0, Windows 95, and Windows 98 are rife with bugs, meaningless error messages, and indecipherable dialog boxes. Including these systems in an educational setting presents both a costly and time-consuming challenge. In an ad for Windows NT 5.0 (now referred to as Windows 2000), Microsoft advertised that the new version would “correct tens of thousands of bugs in Windows NT 4.0.” When several members of the press (including this writer) pointed this out, Microsoft quickly removed the ad.
The paradoxes of today are the prejudices of tomorrow, since the most benighted and the most deplorable prejudices have their moment of novelty when fashion lent them its fragile grace. (8)
In the business environment, the ratio of users to computer support personnel is about 50:1. In education the user to support ratio is around 500:1. The Mac’s ease of use increases the effectiveness of technical support and helps obviate the low support ratio (9).
Specifically, IDC’s White Paper indicated that the Macintosh was easier to support in terms of speed of training, ease of learning, ease of adding peripherals, ease of installing software, ease of installing hardware, and overall effectiveness.
Support Costs Lower
A study by the Gartner Group revealed that the technical support costs for Macintosh computers tend to be 25 percent lower than for corresponding PCs. The study further indicates that a single technical support resource can support 100 Macs but only 77 PCs (10).
Dual Platform Support Costs
“No, there are no detectable extra support costs associated with having both Macintosh AND Windows over and above having Windows alone.” (11)
Though the study was completed in 1995, the cost of supporting dual platforms has declined with the introduction of more robust operating systems and the dramatic falls in the price of computer hardware. “…in a mixed Macintosh/Windows environment, costs can be reduced by increasing the percentage of Macintosh deployed.” (12)
Downtime for educational PCs is two to three times higher than for business computers. The robust nature of the Macintosh Operating System minimizes downtime, while Windows systems experience more interface problems including confusing error messages, system crashes, and reinstallation requirements. Specifically, the IDC Survey indicated that PC platforms exhibit 50% more failures than Macintosh platforms in an educational setting (13).
Share of the education market place
An often-used barometer of the reliability and staying power of a computer company in any particular segment of the market is its segment market share. Apple systems presently comprise 53% of educational computers. The nearest rival, IBM, has less than one third of Apple’s presence in the K-12 educational market. Fully 70% of K-12 school systems employ Macintosh (14).
Schools keep their systems on average about five years vs. three years for business. Though the Macintosh OS has evolved over the years, software that worked five years ago still works fine under the newest upgrade. The reason is simple: The Mac OS has been a true 32-bit operating system since early in its development. Windows, on the other hand, is plagued by incompatibilities between the latest versions and recent 16-bit applications. Specifically, Macintoshes are used by schools an average of 5.4 years vs. other PC platforms that are typically replaced after 4.5 years. Macs are also used longer before upgrading is necessary (15).
People commonly educate their children as they build their houses, according to some plan they think beautiful, without considering whether it is suited to the purposes for which they are designed. (16)
Capability and Connectivity
Students who use Macs in school on average use more applications than their PC counterparts, and the use of more applications indicates more in-depth information processing. Though the latest versions of Windows claim ‘preemptive multitasking’ that should result in less data loss, my experience has been that the Macintosh is still much more reliable running multiple applications. This is particularly important for desktop publishing or multimedia authoring—both crucial areas of interest for the schools.
Easier Multimedia Access
The Mac is the overwhelming choice for working with multimedia as students find it easier to use video editing, to scan and use scanned graphics, and to work with digital cameras. Upgrading to these technologies on the Mac requires no consideration of Interrupt Requests (IRQ), port address, or memory locations, while upgrading on equivalent PCs can be a virtual nightmare. Apple lead the way in pioneering multimedia technology and more than half of all multimedia computers used in schools are Macintosh (17).
The Desktop Metaphor
Apple’s Macintosh employed a simple, straightforward desktop metaphor from its inception in 1984. Microsoft copied much of the look and feel of the Mac but avoided the simple desktop in order to preclude an Apple lawsuit. To date, students find the Mac significantly easier to use than Windows 95, 98, or NT.
A survey by Field Research Corporation indicates that the Macintosh is the leading brand of computers used by teachers with over 2 million teachers using Macs at school or at home. Clearly, teacher familiarity with a platform minimizes support and training costs (18).
Availability of Educational Software
In the Fall of 1997, the EPIE Institute reported that the Mac OS leads Windows in the number of educational software titles for all grade levels and subject areas. Nearly all of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s (ASCD) highest rated software programs run on Macintosh computers. (19)
More schools that use Macintosh computers access the Internet than schools that use PCs or PC compatibles. Correspondingly, teachers and students in schools that use Macs are more likely to access the Internet than their PC using counterparts. (20)
The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration. (21)
iMac: The First Educational Network Computer
In the Winter of 1997, I wrote a paper entitled ‘Paradigm Paralysis and the Plight of the PC in Education’ which was published in the Fall issue of The Journal of Computing in Higher Education (22), the April 98 report of the International Conference on Technology and Education, and the November 97 Mac Factor column at http://mymac.com. In that paper, I analyzed the state of educational computing and concluded that educators spend far too much time maintaining their computer systems, upgrading software, and dealing with security issues. I concluded that network computer technology offers an inexpensive way forward for K-12 education while meeting the President’s Year 2000 goals.
Since that paper was published, Apple released the iMac computer. The iMac is a kind of quasi-network computer that includes many of the educational advantages cited in the article. It provides an affordable, powerful alternative to the standard complex workstation and should be seriously considered for procurement by universities and K-12 schools interested in increasing student information access while simultaneously cutting purchase and support costs. ‘Thinking differently’ could transform a school’s computing environment, letting information access and processing to surface, with the hardware disappearing seamlessly into the background where it belongs.
Network Computer: Inexpensive
Apple’s iMac: Inexpensive
Network Computer: Easy to install
Apple’s iMac: Easy to install
Network Computer: Easy to connect to the Internet
Apple’s iMac: Easy to connect to the Internet
Network Computer: Minimal expansion ensuring simple maintenance and support
Apple’s iMac: Expansion only via the industry standard Universal Serial Bus
Network Computer: Diskless to maximize network security
Apple’s iMac: Diskless (though optional floppy drive is available)
Network Computer: Secure desktop software tailored to individual users
Apple’s iMac: At Ease for Work Groups individually tailors and protects desktops
Network Computer: System Software easy to use
Apple’s iMac: Mac OS sets the standard for ease of use
Network Computer: Fast Ethernet port built-in
Apple’s iMac: Fast Ethernet port built-in
Network Computer: Peer to peer networking software
Apple’s iMac: Peer to peer networking software an inherent part of the Mac OS for years
Network Computer: Server-based applications software
Apple’s iMac: Supported by Novell-, Windows NT-, and Apple Rhapsody-based servers
Network Computer: Inexpensive to maintain
Apple’s iMac: Macintosh has an outstanding maintenance history in comparison to PCs
(1)The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993, 1995 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
(2) International Data Corporation (IDC), ‘Understanding the Total Cost and Value of Integrating Technology in Schools’, October 1998. IDC is one of the leading providers of market information, industry analysis, and strategic and tactical guidance to users of information technology. An extensive list of IDC studies is available on the World Wide Web at <http://www.idcresearch.com>
(3) Computer magazines make money from advertisements; software/hardware companies advertise new products; new products are released often in conjunction with new operating systems; and new operating systems are often released to fix problems with older operating systems. Thus every time Microsoft releases a new version of Windows, there’s a new version of PageMaker, a new version of Office, and so on. Of course, Adobe and Microsoft take out full page ads in every PC computer magazine. Do you suppose there’s any chance at all that the major computer magazines would dwell on the truth about the flaws in the system that’s driving its main source of income?
(4) Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), German philosopher. Parerga and Paralipomena, vol. 2, ch. 1, sct. 17 (1851)
(5) G. C. Lichtenberg (1742-99), German physicist, philosopher. Aphorisms, “Notebook A,” aph. 17 (written 1765-99; tr. by R. J. Hollingdale, 1990).
(6) EPIE Institute, Fall 1997 Update, The Educational Software Selector (TESS).
(7) IDC White Paper, 9.
(8) Marcel Proust (1871-1922), French novelist. Pleasures and Regrets, “Regrets, Reveries, Changing Skies,” no. 5 (1896; tr. 1948)
(9) IDC White Paper, 1.
(10) Gartner Group. Technical Support Costs in Dual-Platform Computing Environments, October 1995
(11) Gartner Group, 5.
(12) Gartner Group, 6.
(13) IDC White Paper, 10.
(14) IDC White Paper, 3. and Market Data Retrieval, Technology in Education, 1997 (advanced report findings)
(15) IDC White Paper, 4.
(16) Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), English society figure, letter writer. Letter, 19 Feb. 1750, to her daughter Lady Bute (published in Selected Letters, ed. by Robert Halsband, 1970)
(17) Quality Education Data, Education Technology Trends, 9th Edition, Dec. 1996
(18) Field Research Corporation, K-12 Teacher Survey, Jan. 1997
(19) EPIE Institute, Fall 1997 Update, The Educational Software Selector (TESS).
(20) Field Research Corporation, 10/97 K-12 Survey
(21) Allan Bloom (1930-92), U.S. educator, author. The Closing of the American Mind, Preface (1987).
(22) Mick O’Neil. “Paradigm Paralysis and the Plight of the PC in Education,” The Journal of Computing in Higher Education (FALL 1998): 97-104
•Mick O’Neil• <firstname.lastname@example.org>