A new generation of desktop and network operating systems (OS) promises to expand the choices available to educators this year. The new systems boast features that aim to boost productivity, improve security, and create a more robust architecture to handle the increased demands of web publishing and network management, their proponents say.
Microsoft Corp. released Windows 2000, a major upgrade to its NT network OS, in February after a yearlong delay. Apple is expected to follow suit this summer with the desktop version of its OS X, which will replace the current OS 8.x line as the company’s flagship system, while the Ottawa-based Corel Corp. is marketing its desktop version of the open-source Linux OS heavily to schools.
According to market research firm International Data Corp., more than 65 percent of elementary and secondary school computers were Windows-based PCs in 1999. That’s good news for Microsoft. Its release of Windows 2000 comes at a time when the software giant faces several challenges, including a possible breakup after being found guilty April 3 of violating federal antitrust laws.
The new operating system, which cost more than $1 billion to develop, has a multitude of bells and whistles not included with Windows 98 or NT, according to Microsoft.
The company claims that its system will reduce the cost of ownership for a school district by reducing the need for in-house troubleshooting and maintenance.
“Our early adopters are seeing that the new platform addresses mission-critical issues, such as increasing access to important information and efficiently managing desktops in remote locations,” said Bryan Watson, general manager of the Microsoft education group.
New features include:
• Active Directory, which allows users to reduce deployment time and manage the entire network easily from a single access point. What once required six programs to be installed can be done all at once, Microsoft says.
• Built-in Terminal Service lets users run Windows 2000 on older machines, including 386 and 486 desktop computers.
• IntelliMirror, which gives users enhanced access to software and information by letting their computer resources “follow” them regardless of where they are in the school district. “Offline Files,” an IntelliMirror feature, lets users keep working on key documents, even if the network connection fails.
Market analysts have given the product favorable reviews so far, though some have noted that its delay in shipping might have cost Microsoft an advantage over its competitors, such as Novell and Sun Microsystems.
“This is probably the best product Microsoft has ever released, in terms of meeting the expectations of the purchasing audience,” said analyst Rob Enderle of the Giga Information Group. “It’s also a product that may be shipping too late for its own good. About two years ago, they probably would have been able to hold back the emergence of competing products, but now the genie’s out of the bottle.”
Missouri’s Blue Springs School District was the first K-12 district to install Windows 2000. Since last August, Blue Springs has used the product in beta testing to link more than 5,000 computers, 12,000 students, and 20 schools.
Blue Spring’s director of technology, Don Keeler, has been impressed so far. “It’s a whole new product. The security level and built-in maintenance are better than anything we’ve ever had,” he said, adding: “It has self-healing capabilities. For example, if someone accidentally deletes Word, the operating system automatically rebuilds that.”
David Tapang, Windows 2000 schools marketing manager, said, “The Offline Files feature lets you create on your computer a mirror image of documents stored on the network, ensuring maximum productivity for schools. Just think of all the numerous support calls technology coordinators could eliminate.”
According to Keeler, response from teachers and students has been positive as well. “It does so much more than file and print. Students can keep their work online, and they’ve responded to that very well. And with teachers, no news is good news. We’ve heard of no problems. They are all in a happy mode,” he said.
The system’s cost might scare off schools, with network versions of the software starting at $599 and climbing based on the number of users licensed. Analysts also note that the price of the software alone will be only a small portion of the total cost to convert school districts to the new system, once training needs are factored in.
Educators can take a look at Windows 2000 for themselves with a variety of free resources on the Microsoft web site (see link below).
One operating system that schools won’t have to pay much for is Linux, a derivation of the Unix OS that was the darling of Wall Street investors before the recent market fluctuation.
The brainchild of Finnish student Linus Torvalds, Linux OS is available as free shareware and is “open source,” which means anyone is welcome to make improvements in the program coding. According to market analysts, Linux is the fastest-growing operating system worldwide.
Many businesses, hospitals, and 911 call centers are using Linux to run mission-critical systems, but Corel Corp. is taking a different approach. The company has developed a desktop version of Linux that it calls a perfect solution for the education environment.
“Schools want to extend existing networks and make old applications productive again,” said Derik Belair, Corel’s director of strategic applications. “Our customizability and security level fit in very well. Schools won’t even have to change what they already have.”
According to Corel, Linux “is known for its stability and encompasses all of the features one would expect from an operating system, including virtual memory, true multitasking, incredibly fast TCP/IP networking, shared libraries, and multi-user capabilities, enabling hundreds of people to use one computer simultaneously.”
Linux’s biggest advantage is its cost. The software can be downloaded at no cost from Corel’s web site and is designed to work in any PC-based networked environment, Corel said. The system’s graphical user interface makes it as easy to use as Windows or the Mac OS.
The lack of applications developed to run on Linux has been a barrier to the system’s widespread adoption until now. But Corel has released a Linux-based version of its WordPerfect Office 2000 suite of productivity tools to address this problem.
At Earl of March Secondary School in Ontario, Corel’s Linux was installed in its beta-testing stage. Colin Anderson, a computer contact teacher at Earl of March, chose to implement Linux in his school for several reasons, but noted that cost was a major factor.
“The cost to the school of the Windows OS is a little over 10 percent of the purchase price of a new computer,” he explained. “We had to outfit two new labs of computers each for a mandatory IT [information technology] course for our grade nines, and the choice of Linux as the OS enabled us to have 30 machines per lab vs. 27.”
Anderson also lauds the Linux operating system for its reliability: “Linux, being based on a very well-developed and long-lasting OS, is widely regarded as much more reliable than Windows. Our experience supports that. The biggest difference is that the design of Linux allows that if the applications crash, the OS doesn’t.”
Security is another advantage to installing Linux, according to Anderson, who explains that students must log on to use school computers, and their files are therefore traceable. “The file system is designed in such a way that file permissions are set based on the log-in level of the user, making it virtually impossible to make any changes that are not prescribed by administrators,” he said.
Schools can use existing education applications on Linux-driven machines by employing a Citrix server, Belair said. But most analysts say K-12 schools won’t embrace Linux widely until more Linux-based applications are developed for education.
“The education sector is often price-sensitive and that specifies a predisposition to Linux,” said Al Gillen, an analyst with International Data Corp. “That said, the Linux OS must offer the applications needed for teaching or [educators] won’t use it. The lack of applications is a stumbling block for Linux in general.”
Mac OS X
Once the dominant player in K-12 computer operating systems, Apple has seen its share of the installed base in K-12 schools steadily erode. The company hopes to change that with the release of its Macintosh OS X (pronounced “Ten”) this summer.
A completely new version of the Macintosh operating system, OS X generated a great deal of interest when it was first unveiled at the MacWorld Exposition in San Francisco Jan. 5. The system is designed to be Apple’s consumer and network OS wrapped into one and is Apple’s answer to Windows 2000. A server version of OS X, which has been available since last year, reportedly will be offered as an add-on to the client version.
Some new features of OS X include:
• A docking station at the bottom of the screen that can store icons, so users can access other files or applications quickly;
• Protected memory that places running files in their own memory space to prevent erasure in case of a crash;
• Eye-pleasing graphics and design, including translucent controls and menus that allow users to see the program running underneath them; and
• Preemptive multitasking that watches over the processor and organizes tasks, depending on preset priorities.
Following what many expect to be a six-month period after the official release of OS X, Apple will start to preinstall the system on its entire line of PowerPC-based computers.
Apple declined repeated requests by eSchool News for an interview, saying it does not give interviews for products that have not been released. Requests to speak to its beta-testers likewise were turned down by the company.
Windows 2000 demonstrations
Apple Computer Inc.