Is Client Platform Diversity Taking Hits Due to Budget Cutting?

Despite the failing U.S. economy last year, higher education institutions were creative about finding budget dust and delaying the inevitable. As the second year of budget cuts hits IT planning on campus this year, one way IT departments might reduce costs is to homogenize the campus computing environment. That possibility, even likelihood, is ratcheting up the tension surrounding the arguments most of us have heard before—only this time it's not just the usual intense fervor over preferences, the bottom line is diminishing dollars.

Many purchasing staff already believe that when comparably configured with their PC equivalents, there is a significantly larger initial cost for a Macintosh desktop and laptop machine. And many IT managers believe that keeping help desk and other client support personnel up to date on both Mac and Windows operating systems is a non-trivial cost that can be eliminated in this time of shrinking budgets. It's really hard to justify spending resources bringing staff up to speed in order to support a type of machine that represents a small and dwindling percent of all your client boxes.

Macintosh supporters lobby in support of diversity, saying that the Mac OS d'esn't crash and is easier to learn, thus reducing the amount of training for users and staff time needed to support them. And, of course, there are those in the IT world itself who personally prefer the Macintosh and argue that if we only had a Mac emulator to parallel Virtual PC, that Macs would be the obvious superior choice. Adding to the decision making variables, Macintosh users among influential senior non-IT faculty and staff are often in a position to sway decision making.

It's very hard to argue in any environment that "techies" are the best judge of what tools faculty and staff need to do their jobs. IT managers who personally prefer PCs may not only be in favor of platform diversity and in favor of user choice, but also wary of IT departments' reputations for "making their jobs easier" by eliminating choice and controlling availability. If it were solely up to IT staff, some would say, we'd all be using dumb terminals right now, with a central administration pushing out to us whatever software it thinks we need, when it thinks we need it—with ugly consequences. Anyone who has ever traveled with a Windows XP machine on which they do not have an administrator log-in—and tried to add a printer driver, at home or in a hotel on the weekend—understands the unintended complexities that can be introduced by too much control.

On the other hand, many institutions have realized that they are undisputedly wedded to Windows for client machines. With rare exceptions it is no longer a systemwide choice between PC or Mac, but an inevitability that Windows will be supported—and that Macintosh might be. Financial managers no longer ask for cost comparisons between the two systems, instead they ask about the additional costs of support, maintenance, software, and service for two platforms instead of one. All of this is further complicated, of course by Linux.

Even as PCs take over the higher education campus, albeit more slowly than they've overwhelmed the corporate campus, there are pockets of resistance. In schools of education, where graduates will depart for a professional world where Macs are a larger part of the scene, they remain more common on campus. In a survey of concurrently running software licenses, many would be surprised to see how highly-ranked Macs are overall, despite their usually lesser numbers on campus, since many users in the creative arts will be running several resource-intensive applications on a Mac at once: Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Quark, a video editor, etc. Despite client platform diversity niches, however, intra-departmental diversity is on the wane, despite the argument that by forcing homogeneity you may be depriving some specific hard core, very productive users of their favored tools. It is inarguable, in the short term at least, that most students are headed for a world of PCs, and may anticipate rarely ever doing more at work than running an e-mail client, a browser, Word, and Excel.

This writer believes that Apple hardware has more style and panache, and that the Mac OS is more stable and more innovative. And, finally, the cross-platform compatibility for every application I use is near 100 percent. I am even lucky enough to probably be able to sweep up enough department "budget dust" later in the year to be privileged to make the tough decision between Yao's 14" PowerBook G4 and Mini-Me's 17" PowerBook G4. But the fiscal realities at work on campus do point to a greater reduction in client platform diversity in higher education institutions, so maybe it'll be a loaded Dell Precision M50. This may be the last year I have such a choice, unless I am willing to put up the cash myself.

[Postscript: Notice that I am not addressing how Linux fits into the above debate. I think the fiscal crisis is going to badly stunt acceptance of Linux, even if for the wrong reasons. Maybe that's a topic for another opinion piece—if you're interested in writing one, contact me: terry.calhoun@scup.org.]

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