Just in Time Technology


 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 12|No 2|October|2002
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The New Operating
Systems -
Must Have?
Must Miss?

by Laura Lewis
(about author)

© 2002, Laura Lewis
all rights reserved.

The Quiz

Summer of 2002 brought us “X” and “XP.” What do they have in common?

A) Nicknames for “agent” Vin Diesel in xXx, the summer action movie
B) Editor’s marks from your latest attempt to be the next great American novelist.
C) The latest computer operating systems on the market by Apple and Microsoft.

The correct answer is “C.”

OS X (which stands for the roman numeral 10) is the latest operating system from Apple, and XP is the latest operating system from Microsoft.

This article will explore the following questions:

1) How do these new systems differ from the old?
2) Is this a "must have" or a "must miss" upgrade for the near future?
What is an operating system?

The operating system is the software that controls the operation of a computer and directs the processing of programs. When you first turn on a new computer the desktop, files, and folders that appear are a function of your operating system.

OS X and XP make OS 9 or Windows 2000 look like an avocado green GE.

The difference between the “old” operating systems and these new operating systems is like the difference between a 5-year-old GE stove and one of this year’s professional-quality models built to rival commercial equivalents. According to a recent article in Time Magazine, the kitchen has become the new family headquarters and “as any corporate boss can tell you, headquarters tend to get all the bells and whistles.” (Saporito, 2002)

The ideal computer for educators will offer an operating system that seems like an old friend. Something vastly more simple with fewer options, less razzmatazz and just clear cut pathways to let us get on with the art of teaching and learning.

There is a similar trend at work in the computing market—collapsing the needs of the mass market with those of the professional consumer.

OS X and Windows XP are modeled on operating systems used to power corporate computer networks and servers. XP is based on Windows NT technology, which was originally designed for sprawling, complex corporate networks. OS X is based on Unix a powerful programming language that backs the systems used by NASA for example.

Like their kitchen equivalents these new operating systems are going to use up a whole lot more resources than their predecessors. In stove speak that would mean space and power in computer speak that means more memory and disk space.

To barely run OS X or XP, your system must meet the following minimum requirements: 128 MB of RAM, 1.5 GB of free disk space, and a fast processor. To effectively run X or XP, you will need the latest computer on the market with tons of memory. If you want to avoid frustration and performance problems, double the minimum memory requirements from 128 MB of RAM to 256.

Why do you need so much memory and so much disk space?

OS X and XP have millions more lines of code than past operating systems in order to provide “features” that Apple and Microsoft argue improve the computing experience. Most of these features have been created with the corporate buyer in mind and are superfluous in a classroom setting. These features require more speed, memory and disk space to work. See the sidebar for a rundown on standout features of the new operating systems.

What do I need as a classroom teacher?

Ultimately you must ask yourself the same question as the homeowner—what will you use this stove/computer for? If you are running a catering company out of your kitchen then you probably need the professional-quality stove. If you need a computer that can edit video footage, connect to a network and pass images and documents back and forth with co-workers around the globe or conduct complex simulations then you will be loving the new generation of OS.

Hardware costs are often overlooked by districts and individual consumers when upgrading to a new operating system. If your school machine is being upgraded to either OS X or XP, 1) make sure your computer was made after 2001, and 2) insist that you get additional memory (RAM) installed--enough to bring it up to 256 MB.

If, on the other hand, you use the computer for the occasional memo, keeping track of grades and the rest of the time your students use it to write, run software (compatible to your present system) or search on the Internet, then you do not need one of these new operating systems now.

The computer, unfortunately, is not an appliance.

The comparison ends here because your stove is an appliance. The difference between a GE and Wolf are in power not function. The computer is an infrastructure. Donald Norman, author of The Invisible Computer (see FNO review), suggests that computer companies keep adding more functions and features to simplify this complex infrastructure for the mature mass market instead of rethinking overall design.

In the mature market, new classes of customers emerge: the mass market. These are the pragmatic, conservative customers who wait until the technology settles down, who wait until they can get value for their money with a minimum of fuss and bother. They want results. The same product that satisfied the early adopters now creates confusion. They require assistance, handholding. Companies must build up elaborate service organizations to handle the customer needs (p. 39, Norman, 1998).

These new operating systems build in many attempts to handhold the pragmatic conservative customer - including a radical, desktop makeover for the Mac (see side-bar for new features) and all kinds of new help wizards in XP.

Both companies are offering an Internet hub for help and service information--a kind of virtual one-stop-shopping. Mac calls this terra incognita “digital life” and Microsoft promises “passport services.”

In contrast, Norman calls for a product development process that includes the user experience. “To improve products, companies need a development philosophy that targets the human user, not the technology.” (p.39)

In my opinion, the new operating systems are not user friendly because they suffer from too many “bells and whistles.”

My husband, the early adopter in the family, loves both new operating systems. He is a tinkerer. The new operating systems require a lot of tinkering to 1) figure out how to do what you have always done; and 2) figure out all the new features.

I can’t stand tinkering I want to access my files and documents, surf the Internet, play the occasional music CD then call it a day. If I want to do something more sophisticated like alter photos or create Web pages then I rely on software to help me. My husband points out how much better these programs will function when they have been upgraded to the new operating systems.

That’s the rub. We will have to wait for our favorite programs—our tools of productivity—to catch up. As another early adopter friend of mine, Becky Fisher (Assistant Director of Technology for Albemarle County) laments:

I can’t synchronize my Palm with my Outlook calendar on my Macintosh. I can’t even run an OS X version of Outlook on my Macintosh because Microsoft hasn’t built it yet (if they will be building it at all).

She points out:

Whatever operating system a teacher has in front of him or her today won’t be there in five years from now (if the school has a replacement cycle). If a teacher doesn’t know what to do when they upgrade from Office 97 to Office XP, then they didn’t understand the Office system. It’s about internalizing processes and not learning products!

I think Becky has a really good point. The ideal computer for educators will offer an operating system that seems like an old friend. Something vastly more simple with fewer options, less razzmatazz and just clear cut pathways to let us get on with the art of teaching and learning.

On the plus side, both operating systems are more stable. System-wide “crashes” (the kind that require you to restart) are less likely to happen, if at all. This is a welcome improvement. However, don’t be fooled. The programs will still “crash.” It's just that you won’t have to restart your system to get them working again.

In many ways these new features are bringing the two systems closer together than ever before. The main differences are not apparent to the naked eye but exist at the kernel level (core software which dictates how information is stored and processed).

Standout Features

These are the design features that really “standout” for first time users.

Mac OS X

  • The dock—the Mac answer to the “taskbar” shows icons of programs running and “favorites” that you drag and drop to the dock so they are always on hand-standout
  • The finder—has moved and is now listed under a new menu item next to “File”-Shutdown
  • The apple menu—clearly organized with access to system level commands such as Restart, Shutdown, Sleep, and Force Quit-standout

Microsoft Windows XP

  • The desktop—scrupulously clutter free. You can still create aliases for the desktop but other than trash all the other system level program files are located in the start menu--shutdown
  • Start menu--Two-column redesign: left column contains My Documents, My Computer and Program Folders; right column contains programs and documents, as you open and run different apps this list is continually updated in the left column. You can “pin” an app to start menu with a right click—standout.
  • Task Bar--same look but multiple open documents are now condensed into a pop-up screen—shutdown.

Note: Laura Lewis is completing a doctoral program in educational technology at the University of Virginia. She may be reached at lclewis@arachnerd.com.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.
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