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Easy upgrade for the Mac OS X-men

Apple's legendary ease of use made light work of upgrading the Isle of Man's 35 primary school computers to Mac OS X. Les Watson reports

The operating system you use on your computer is like the weather - everyone complains about it but no one does anything about it. The operating system provides the overall "climate" in which you work on both the server and on the desktop. So why do so many users put up with Windows, moan about it all the time, and never consider anything else?

I suppose it comes down to what the alternatives are, and what the benefits and costs of changing are likely to be. Operating systems based on Unix have been the preferred choice of many computer professionals for some time and Apple moved its OS to a Unix-based platform some time ago. Initially, dedicated Mac users didn't like Apple's OS X, but with a little use it gets you hooked. In schools, Mac OS X has been adopted by some local authorities: many in Scotland, a few in England, but extensively on the Isle of Man.

The Isle of Man is a self-governing crown dependency with 13,000 school pupils across five secondary schools and 35 primary schools. Investment in ICT has been significant, with computer-pupil ratios of a minimum of 1:7 and as good as 1:5 in some schools - and all of these machines are less than three years old. Broadband (45Mb) serves all the schools and extensive use is made of wireless networking.

All primary schools on the island use Apple computers exclusively. John Thornley, ICT adviser for the island, believes that Mac OS X provides ease of use, is a stable product, and provides both technical transparency and low cost of ownership.

The Department of Education's ICT support and advisory service on the Isle of Man upgraded all its primary school computers to Mac OS X in just six weeks. In total, over 3,000 computers, on 40 networks, were upgraded with a technical staff of two.

Thornley thinks it highly unlikely that an upgrade of this magnitude could have been achieved on a Windows platform with so few staff in such a short time. The team uses Apple Remote Desktop to control and maintain 500 Apple G4 teacher laptops, 1,200 Apple desktop machines and 1,000 Apple iBooks from the central office.

The project to move to Mac OS X did necessitate training for users - but OS X, although very powerful, is so easy to use that the entire user base required only a one-hour training course. Kinrade puts this down to the highly intuitive feel of the operating system.

Software installation also proved to be very straightforward. The Isle of Man team set up a single file containing all the licensed software required for the thousands of computers they were upgrading. This was then distributed and the applications installed using Net Install (a utility that comes with the server version of Mac OS X).

Back in 2000, the Isle of Man was probably the first nation to provide all its teachers with laptop computers. Now that is has successfully dealt with a nationwide kit, training, and operating system upgrade I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't move on to putting the British weather right.

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