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.” –
Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927), British author. Three Men in a Boat, ch. 17 (1889).

Today’s tall tales are told by ‘technical anglers,’ or ‘tanglers,’ as they are called. These tanglers unabashedly shower the unsuspecting observer with circumstantial details about the speed of a processor, the width of a data bus, the exhilarating impact of the latest graphics accelerators, 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 myriad of system crashes, the incompatibilities, the hours and hours needed to upgrade hardware and software, or the almost incomprehensible number 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. Specific arguments will be presented concerning compatibility, cost considerations, and the capability of the Mac 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 environment atmosphere (active learning environment is one of the buzz words). Empowerment was a concept that schools could embrace because it was achievable – and because it placed some of the 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 hardware and 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 – most frequently made – by chancellors, superintendents, and principals, usually people with minimal technical knowledge or experience. They often rely on ‘self-styled experts’ in the ‘Management Information Systems’ office for advice, and many of these ‘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, with Apple having introduced a new and improved Mac OS and a full-powered, inexpensive version of that original Macintosh consumer appliance – 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 in action at a number of universities that recently decided to recommend Windows equipment to incoming freshmen – and to phase out support for the minority Mac.

‘Tangled up with Blue
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 innumerable problems in the popular computer press. There is almost a conspiracy of silence 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 nonstarter, 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.

‘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 effectively 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. (Surely, students should not be subjected to the Windows kludge simply because Microsoft has ruthlessly exploited business users!)
  • If 90% of computer users work with Windows, then it must be okay. (Yes, well, 90% of smokers used to believe it was a perfectly safe habit and rejected all arguments to the contrary.)
  • There’s more software out there for Windows based systems. (Most of the finest software was developed on the Mac first and is still available for the Macintosh. Though it is true that software retail stores devote little shelf life to the Macintosh, it is also true that most of the titles on the rest of the shelves are rubbish.)
  • The Macintosh is incompatible with the management systems we have in place. (Compatibility is no longer a factor except in those rare instances when a company is running in-house applications software. Even then, there are PC emulators on the Mac that will run as efficiently as most PC’s in business today.)
  • The Mac can’t be expanded like the PC, and therefore can’t be used for multimedia production. (Expansion is a complex issue. In the PC world, almost all hardware expansion is based on add-in boards that require elaborate and often time-consuming configuration changes to the operating system. All Macs include SCSI, USB, and/or FireWire ports – all of which are enormously easier to configure and use than add-in boards. The Mac was the first real multimedia computer and is still the multimedia machine of choice for most of the industry.)
  • Most software development is done on the PC. (True or not, this is irrelevant. In fact, many award winning games [like Myst and its sequel] were actually developed on the Mac.)
  • If Apple goes out of business, the selection of Macintosh-based systems will be a disaster. (Apple is now very unlikely to go out of business soon. If the worse did happen, however, the existence of close to 30,000,000 Macs means that a support industry would quickly evolve.)
  • No one has ever been fired for buying IBM (or PC compatibles by extension). (Though that may have been true in the past, one would have to carefully consider any decision by an MIS manager to purchase the bug-ridden Windows NT or Windows 98 systems.)

The dangerous aspects of these arguments 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, 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:

  1. The Macintosh is easier to use (compatibility and capability);
  2. The Macintosh is cheaper to buy and cheaper to support (costs);
  3. 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.

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.

Compatibility with older Macintosh software: Unlike Windows-based systems, the iMac can happily run software developed on the Mac many years ago. There is 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 and has been able to mount PC disks since 1989. Since the programs most frequently used in a Windows environment were first released for the Macintosh, Mac applications have very few problems opening Windows data files.

Compatibility with PC software: There are two robust Windows emulators available for the Macintosh that runs all major Windows programs. The Mac can, in fact, run both the Mac OS and Windows simultaneously, and cut and paste information between 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 other PCs. Upgrading older PC hardware to support multimedia applications can be a technical nightmare. Older Macs, on the other hand, can be expanded via SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) 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 Reliability Problems continued: 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.


Support: In the business environment, the ratio of users to computer support personnel is about 50:1. In 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.

Support Specifics: 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% lower than for corresponding PCs. The study further indicates that a single technical support resource can support 100 Macs but only 77 PCs .

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.” 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.”

Downtime: Downtime for educational PC’s is two to three times longer than for business computers. The robust nature of the Macintosh operating system minimizes downtime, while Windows systems experience more interface problems including innocuous error messages, system crashes, and reinstall requirements. Specifically, the IDC Survey indicated that PC platforms exhibit 50% more failures than Macintosh platforms in an educational setting.

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.

System Longevity: Schools keep their systems on average about five years vs. three years for business. Though the Macintosh OS has evolved over the years. Because it was a true 32-bit operating system early in its development, software that worked five years ago, works fine under the newest upgrade. 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.

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.

Capability and Connectivity

Information Processing: 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.

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. (There is research that says this – check the GISTICS report, so you could quote it and footnote it)

Teacher Effectiveness: 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.

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.

Internet Access: 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.

iMac: The First Educational Network Computer

I published a paper entitled ‘Paradigm Paralysis and the Plight of the PC in Education’ in the Fall issue of The Journal of Computing in Higher Education, the April 98 report of the International Conference on Technology and Education, and the November 97 Mac Factor column at http://www.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.

Bondi iMacSince 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 work station 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. Recently, Dartmouth University retreated from a decision to recommend Windows based machines to their incoming freshman class and opted for the iMac instead. ‘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.

Advantages of a Network Computer

  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to install
  • Easy to connect to the Internet
  • Minimal expansion ensuring simple maintenance and support
  • Diskless to maximize network security
  • Secure desktop software tailored to individual users
  • System Software easy to use
  • Fast Ethernet port built-in
  • Peer to peer networking software
  • Server based applications software
  • Inexpensive to maintain

Apple’s iMac

  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to install
  • Easy to connect to the Internet
  • Expansion only via the industry standard Universal Serial Bus
  • Diskless (though optional floppy drive is available)
  • At Ease for Work Groups individually tailors and protects desktops
  • Mac OS sets the standard for ease of use simplicity
  • Fast Ethernet port built-in
  • Part of Mac OS for past 14 years
  • Supported by Novell, Windows NT, and Apple Rhapsody based servers
  • Macintosh have outstanding maintenance history in comparison to PCs

Mick O’Neil was a regular contributor to MyMac.com from 1997 through 2001 who made his living in education. He was one of the finest writers on the Mac Web and passed away unexpectedly in 2001.

Short link: http://goo.gl/O0kR28