Magazine article Curriculum Administrator

Platform Wars: Windows, Mac OS and Linux: When It Comes to Operating Systems, Schools Need to Make Smart Decisions to Keep Their Computers Running Smoothly

Magazine article Curriculum Administrator

Platform Wars: Windows, Mac OS and Linux: When It Comes to Operating Systems, Schools Need to Make Smart Decisions to Keep Their Computers Running Smoothly

Article excerpt

Some days, a school district can feel like a battlefield. There are skirmishes on the playground and disputes in the staff room. At the end of it all, the last thing an administrator wants is to get involved in an even more frustrating battle: the often-passionate, always-contentious dispute over computer operating systems known as "platform wars."

But if you look around your school or district and see a mismatched fleet of computers in both labs and classrooms (running Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and perhaps some older or lesser known OS), it is time to consider which OS is right for which use in your district's arena.

Meet the Contenders

Mac OS, the operating system that runs on Apple Computers' Macintosh machines, has traditionally had the home field advantage in education. Specifically, Apple's overall share of the education computer market has declined, from 58 percent in 1995-96 to 41 percent today. Apple established a dominance in the education market in the 1980s, and some schools are still making use of Apple II and older Macintosh computers purchased back then. This early dominance may make Mac an instinctive choice in some districts. After all, today's teacher or administrator may have been yesterday's school child who looked forward to using those original Apple IIs in the school common area.

Some of that early dominance has faded, in part due to aggressive marketing by Microsoft and myriad PC manufacturers that install Windows, and in part due to the proprietary nature of Apple's system. With few exceptions, the Mac OS runs only on Apple computers. Therefore, a decision to adopt Mac OS is a decision to purchase Apple hardware.

Mac OS currently has a reputation for superiority in graphics and video editing capabilities, factors that may come into play when equipping yearbook offices and graphics classes. A new version of Mac OS, called OS X, is currently available; new Macs purchased after July will be shipped with OS X preloaded.

Windows is the familiar operating system product from Microsoft, the software industry giant. Although not the initial leader in education, Windows made up for it by establishing a dominance in the home and business markets, currently with a 60 percent market share, making it a natural choice for schools seeking to mirror the needs of the community and the familiarity of its staff, students and faculty.

Windows XP is the new entry to the Windows family. Currently in beta testing and due out later this year, this version of Windows seeks to close the gap with Mac by including more advanced graphics and multimedia capability, plus promises to run much of the software programmed to run on Windows 95 or 98 machines.

Linux is, the the newcomer to the group, and its use lags well behind Mac and Windows. It is the only one of the three contenders to be truly open source; that is, the source code for the operating system is publicly available, making it easy for professional and amateur programmers to make modifications. It is, therefore, an excellent choice for those learning to program.

Linux has also gained a reputation for being a stable server operating system, making it a viable back-office option regardless of OS choice for classroom and administration. However, Linux lags behind Mac and Windows with the number of software titles that it can run.

Judging the Field

One person who supports the standardization of operating systems in a school district is Christopher Alghini. He's a technology consultant for private schools, based in Tempe, Ariz. Many of his recommendations are based on his work with the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass., his alma mater. When he returned to the school as their technology director in 1997--ten years after he graduated--he found a variety of systems running a mix of Mac OS, Windows, and Novell.

His first recommendation was what he calls "the Southwest Airlines idea," based on the practice by Southwest of choosing one airplane model that it will fly, simplifying training, parts inventory and maintenance costs. …

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