Hardware | Feature

UMass Boston Sees Shift From PC to Mac Dominance

Apple computers are making a big comeback on university campuses, driven by the surging popularity of the brand. For IT departments used to dealing with Windows-based PCs, this trend requires support staff to learn new skills and adopt new tools to support a growing range of platforms and devices.

In Apurva Mehta's 18 years as director of client services and educational technology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the campus has always been PC-based--until now.

When UMass Boston takes on new faculty members, the new hires can choose which type of computer they want. In the past few years, Mehta has received an increasing number of requests for Macs, and this year the shift reached a tipping point.

“This past fall we hired approximately 28 new faculty members, and this is the first time we’ve ordered more Macs than PCs,” said Mehta. “We ordered about 15 Macs and 13 PCs. I’ve been seeing that gradual shift, but this is the first time I’ve seen the Mac surpass the PC. The tendency seems to be gravitating toward the Mac.”

The shift is also happening with students, an increasing number of whom are bringing their own MacBooks onto campus.

The same trend is taking place with smartphones, too. For years, UMass Boston has operated its own BlackBerry server and most of the faculty and staff used BlackBerries. But since the iPhone was released in 2007, the number of faculty and staff using BlackBerries is dwindling.

Flexibility, Security, and the "Cool" Factor
There are a number of possible reasons for this trend toward Apple products on campus, according to Mehta.

Mehta said that Apple’s transition from PowerPC processors to Intel x86 processors in 2006 played a role in Apple’s growing popularity. “They’re now able to run both Mac and Windows applications using virtualization software such as VMware,” said Mehta. “It gives you some flexibility, so you’re not locked in to one operating system.”

He also cited usability as another reason. “I think the user interface that Apple offers on its Macs is just easier to use than a Windows machine,” said Mehta.

Security may also be a contributing factor. “Macs tend to be attacked less frequently by viruses, malware, and spyware, whereas the PC environment is attacked daily,” said Mehta. “Macs seem to be a little bit more secure than PCs.”

Mehta also said there is a “certain cool factor” associated with Apple products these days that is increasing their popularity among students and faculty. “I have a teenage son at home, and a lot of his friends use the Mac, so it seems to be doing well within that age group” said Mehta. “I think once they come onto campus, they’re going to bring that technology with them.”

The Mac applications themselves may also be driving the popularity of the platform. “The applications that are available on the Mac, such as iLife, interface very nicely with some of the web tools and services that are out there,” said Mehta. “You can create a little video and easily upload it to YouTube.”

Supporting Diverse Devices
The shift toward Apple products is not universal on campus, however. At UMass Boston, faculty members in the science and business departments tend to stick with PCs due to the requirements of the applications they use, whereas faculty in the liberal arts are more likely to choose Apple products.

Android devices are also gaining traction on the UMass Boston campus, primarily with students.

“On the student side, the Android phone is very popular, especially because the operating system is free. And when you compare the cost of an Android phone with an iPhone, there is a significant difference,” said Mehta.

The increasing diversity of technology on campus is creating challenges for the university’s IT support staff, which historically has been geared toward supporting PCs, said Mehta. His team has had to learn new skills and adopt new tools to support the growing range of devices.

Until now, Mehta's support staff consisted of six or seven people who were dedicated to PC support and one person dedicated to Mac support. He’s now trying to cross-train his staff and ensure that new hires have the skills to support multiple platforms.

“Now, when we hire someone for the help desk, we make sure that person has Mac skills because it’s so important to be able to offer our faculty and staff timely service on the Mac,” said Mehta.

For his existing staff, he’s providing informal, hands-on training. The department purchased a couple of iPhones and iPads for the support staff to play with and learn to use, so they could better support the university community.

“We’re not sending anybody off-campus for training,” said Mehta. “You pick up these new devices and learn how to support them.”

How well the IT team members adapt to the new technology depends on how much they like the technology itself.

“Some of them get a little overwhelmed by the change,” said Mehta. “It’s happening a little too quickly for them. Most are able to adapt with it and flow with it, and they’re able to support these new devices. It’s just a matter of how much they love technology.”

Mehta’s team has also adopted a number of software tools to help them support both Macs and PCs.

One of those tools is a program called LogMeIn Rescue. “It allows us to remotely log in to a computer, as long as it’s on the Internet, so our support staff can go into the computer and support the person wherever they are,” said Mehta. His team requires this type of remote support software to assist online faculty members who are teaching from across the country or those who might be away conducting research. The team chose LogMeIn Rescue because it has both a PC client and a Mac client, so they can support both platforms with it.

Whenever possible, Mehta’s team tries to ensure their software purchases work on both the Mac and the PC. For example, the university owns licenses for IBM’s SPSS software for statistical analysis and predictive analytics, which is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Unix environments.

In cases where cross-platform software solutions aren’t available, Mehta’s team installs virtual desktop software on the computer, which enables them to create a virtual Windows desktop on a Mac. Two virtual desktop software products they use are VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop. Both products enable users to run Mac and Windows applications on the same piece of hardware.

According to Mehta, the key to surviving and thriving as an IT team in this rapidly changing market is to hire staff with diverse skills and provide them with the tools they need to stay up-to-date and support new technology.

“It’s not just a PC environment out there anymore,” said Mehta. “Make sure you’re hiring people who really love technology, who like to play with it, so anytime a new device is released to market, you have the ability to purchase one or two of them and get people trained as quickly as possible.

“The whole market is moving so quickly that it’s really important for us to be able to keep up with it,” he continued. “These mobile devices affect the way the faculty teach. We’re now seeing these iPads trickle into the classroom, and ebooks are now available on the iPad or other mobile devices. Technology is changing and you have to change with it--just being able to realize that is very important.”

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