Photo of HP Probook 4400 (HP)

Windows vs. Mac In Schools: All the Wrong Reasons

The Maine Department of Education announced earlier this week that it was switching from Apple Macintoshes to Hewlett-Packard Windows PCs as the technology behind the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. Macs had been used exclusively since the program was started by then-Governor and now Senator Angus King in 2002.

I don’t think it makes a lot of difference whether Maine uses Macs or PCs in its schools. My guess is the state will pay a little less up-front and spending a bit more over the life of the machines because Windows software tends to be somewhat more expensive to maintain. But Maine made its decision for the worst possible reason, one that leads me to wonder if they have any idea of why information technology should be in schools in the first place.

Said Gov. Paul LePage (R):

It is important that our students are using technology that they will see and use in the workplace. The laptops use an operating system that is commonly used in the workplace in Maine. These laptops will provide students with the opportunity to enhance their learning and give them experience on the same technology and software they will see in their future careers.*

As the physicist Wolfgang Pauli said, that’s not even wrong. This argument didn’t make sense 15 years ago, when the differences between Windows and   Mac OS was much greater than it is today and Macs’ market share was much lower. It makes even less at a time a user proficient in one OS can master the the with maybe an hour of training.

But it is much worse if Maine thinks the reason to have computers in schools (and, yes, they really should be thinking about tablets, too) is to teach students how to use specific pieces of hardware and software. Students’ computers should be windows into a boundless sea of information. They should be tools in science class. And students should be learning the principles of programming, not so they can all grow up to be software developers but so that they learn something of what makes today;s most important technology tick–and perhaps learn a bit about the importance of the precise, logical thinking that programming demands.

Gov. LePage seem to see PCs as little more than the modern equivalent of the rows of typewriters in classrooms for vocational typing and the purpose of computers in schools as training students to get jobs typing in word or scheduling appointments in Outlook. The four-year contract is a nice win for HP, but it may be a tragedy for Maine students.

*–The HP Probook 4400s will ship with Windows 8, making LePage’s argument even more lame ,since the new OS has been largely shunned (so far) by business and is far more different from the Windows XP and Windows 7 versions used in business than is Mac OS X. But an HP spokesman notes that Maine schools have the option of downgrading to Windows 7.

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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

32 thoughts on “Windows vs. Mac In Schools: All the Wrong Reasons”

  1. The governor should be considering the cost to the taxpayers of Maine in adopting technology. PC’s, which can be had from numerous manufacturers, are more cost effective than Mac, which are available from only one. That only speaks to the initial investment, never mind ongoing support, repairs and replacements. Additionally the Governor should be concerned with students being familiar with the kinds of technology they are most likely to confront going forward, and Win8 already runs on more computers than all versions of Mac OS combined. As far as access to information, you can access the very same information, using the exact same tools, just as efficiently or effectively from a Mac or a PC. So the real question is the cost of access to that information. Clearly the cost is lower from a PC than a Mac. The governor has a responsibility to spend the people’s dollars wisely, not taking account of his own or others personal preference, here he has done exactly that.

    1. What in the world have you been smoking. I run both Windows and OS X at home and have maintained both in the work place. The maintenance issues with the Mac’s are about 10 less then they are with a PC. You have to ask yourself whether or not the long term cost are more important than the short term cost are. By the way, if you configure a PC the same as what you get from Apple the cost difference is very little.

      1. Macs, even with the school discount, are indeed more expensive and are
        NOT better designed. 1000.00 for a white macbook with 2 USB ports, no
        Mic port, no DVI / VGA port – in fact you need to buy a 60.00 adapter
        to even hook this into a projector or computer monitor – no
        user-replaceable battery…and no SD card port. Now you can pick up some
        of those features with a MB Pro…but then you’re adding hundreds more
        for features even the most basic windows platforms provide – no
        adapters, no hassle – not that you should get the basic model, but you
        can see the disparity. If I need a new battery in my Windows laptop, I go online and buy one from dozens of different manufacturers. I choose the one that works and is best reviewed. I then pop out the old one and pop in the new one.

        If I need a new battery for the brand new white Macbooks my district uses….I can pay an absurd amount for a legitimate “apple” battery, buy a crappy 3rd party one, or get lucky. I then need to void my Apple warranty by opening the MB and replacing the battery. That is a major problem.

        From a maintenance perspective….you’re paying techs for MANY more
        hours to disassembly and reassemble iMacs and Macbooks to perform basic
        repairs such as hard disk, ram, and fan cleaning or replacement. The
        worst part about Macs – when something breaks (whether hardware or on
        the OS end), it takes much longer to fix. The longevity argument is

    2. Unless a contract is wired for Apple (e.g., by specifying OS X as the operating system), Macs will be competing against Windows PCs in the bidding process. This is a big buy, and everyone’s prices are negotiable.

      I’m not sure your claim that there are more Windows 8 computers in use than Macs is correct; it’s been a while since Microsoft has released any numbers and, in any event, the numbers they did put out were for shipments into the channel, not deliveries.

      But all of this is beside the point. I wrote at the top of the article that the choice of Windows or Mac really doesn’t make any difference. This whole familiarity argument is a terrible basis for the choice.

      1. Much depends on grade level, and the types of software required.

        -Windows PC’s can be maintained in house. Macs are approaching total un-upgradability.
        -There’s still a metric poop-ton of Windows software.
        -Every add on device will work on Windows.
        -The hardware is NOT controlled by one company. This is presented as a benefit.
        -There ARE benefits to a more open ecosystem.
        -Going single source is not a good business practice.

        It’s also quite a different scenario for PC’s vs. tablets.
        -PC’s have no curation at all. These schools need to know they can buy, program, or run anything they want.
        -A lot of educational applets, written by teachers over the years, are actually done in Java. Guess what….?
        -Where’s Mathematica, Office, AutoCAD, etc. for tablets?
        Finally, I think the “workplace” argument isn’t entirely without merit. Though I do reserve contempt for Microsoft (even more for Apple), standards matter. The PC sparked the largest boon of innovation precisely because of mutual compatibility. It’s perhaps too bad Microsoft “won”, especially with the tactics they employed, but the Unixes, CP/M’s, and yes, Apple’s of the world made it too easy for them to win. By analogy, the English language is a current international standard. Historically, it gained it’s influence by sometimes unsavory means, but we do all benefit when we can mutually communicate.

    3. Dude, you can run Windows on a Mac.

      Isn’t it shortsighted and a shame for a governor to propagate a system that is good for only one environment and shouldn’t students be exposed to as many systems as possible to improve their skills and prepare them for the world of tomorrow.

  2. Of course Maine students will be using Apple products anyway. The damage will be that they regard their schooling as out of date, out of touch, a chore, and be less motivated to do well at it.

    The governor could be aiming to churn out mindless workers who sit at the looms again… That’s how we can get the Benetton jobs back from Bangladesh and China.

  3. Public education as trade school for the drones of the future.

    I’ve heard that argument against Macs for over 35 years. It’s less true now than it ever was. How are those kids who had to learn Windows 3 in school applying that knowledge now, 20 years later?

  4. PCs have a lower initial cost, but generally higher maintenance costs and lower reliability. Having myself been involved in education market technology for a long time, the general consensus is that Macs are a bit less expensive over a period of several years; it is not at all clear that the governor made a good decision for taxpayers. At best it is likely a wash.

    I fully agree that there is absolutely no point in “training” students on arcane bits of office ephemera like MS Office or the Windows environment. These are trivial skills that can be had in hours, whereas learning to obtain and use real information has lasting value.

    I often think that well-meaning administrators assume that kids need training in these tools only because they find it difficult themselves. Because children come to computers without prior models of interaction, they quickly become fluent on virtually any reasonable system.

    1. One can learn to obtain and use real information on a Windows system without all the transferability and compatibility issues associated with a Mac system.

      1. Long story, long time ago. The bulk of my work as a Windows sysadmin was running my personal operation of my BusinessWeek operation, but it was mostly for my personal setup, including an Exchange and SQL Server system. In an earlier era, I had administered our first LAN in the mid-1980s, supervised the comms connection between our Washington and New York operations (a nightmare that included custom hardware and an IBM System 7 mainframe) and other weird stuff.

        But I have to tell you that Windows is still very important to the enterprise and likely to remain so for some time to come.

  5. Paul LePage is a Businessman and a Republican!!!

    His background explains the decision to go with PCs!!!

  6. Stay tuned…fortunately there are plenty of districts in Maine that see the cost of switching away from their current Apple environments is more costly and will ignore the governor’s preference. The faculty have invested considerable professional development time, and teaching resources in the Mac platform. Sadly, however the DOE’s decision to allow districts to go with any of the bidders will also result in fragmentation of the original program setup and promoted by Angus King’s administration.

  7. Give me a break, “but it may be a tragedy for Maine students”. Like it or not but it sure won’t hurt anyone, any more than it did 15 or 35 years ago. The OS isn’t going to alter how successful students will be, the parents and teachers/schools are responsible for that.

    The districts/schools have become a battleground for selling products and services in quantity to help expand market shares. I loathe what our system has become.

    1. Sorry, but you didn’t read what I wrote. The tragedy is not buying Windows PCs vs. Macs but in thinking that the important use of technology in classrooms is vocational training in specific software.

  8. I don’t know what it is like these days in Maine. When I was there Macs were pretty well embedded even as we had school meetings discussing this very thing. Plus, he did say that schools are welcome to continue purchasing Macs, but they will have to come up with the cost difference.


  9. With a Mac you have MacOS and Windows capabilities – with HP you lose that. Distributing the cost over 3-5 years, there’s no great savings with HP. I’m thinking the Governor was looking exclusively at the up-front cost and taking the cheaper route and not looking at the long game, which is no big surprise.

  10. It used to be that schools were meant to turn eager young students into educated citizens. Today it seems that the purpose of schools is to turn children of workers into worker droids, maintaining economic divisions. No wonder the quality of education in the U.S. continues to fall and we have to important intelligent, trained professionals from overseas.

    1. In fairness, this is a fight over U.S. education policy that has been raging since the advent of public high schools in the 19th century. Right now, the vocationalists are in the ascendancy, but the pendulum is always swinging.

      1. In fairness, the smartest and brightest people in the world still come to the United States and send their children to US Colleges and boarding schools. The best scientists, soldiers, engineers, etc. all come out of this education system that for the past decade people have cited as being in the decline.

        Before you go comparing our student’s math and science scores to students in Asia, or anywhere, take some time to educate yourself about the education system in each country. For instance: the United States tests students who have severe disabilities – even the ones who cannot speak, read, write, recognize colors, etc. If they are integrated (and the vast majority are), they are tested. Asian schools throw these students in dumpsters. In fact, education in most of the world is a lottery system – only the brightest and most capable are given the chance to compete for a spot in “public” schools and higher education.

  11. I’m curious what proprietary local software many of these schools run. I know a good many in the Bay Area all use software that resides in the cloud. Seems to me like Chromebooks are best suited for many of these situation. Of course the iPad is ideal but also requires more work to set up, manage, and implement.

    1. The major impediment to cloud-based technology is infrastructure. In my area, Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, generally regarded as one of the country’s better system, is still talking about a rollout of Wi-Fi in high schools. And I doubt whether many schools have the backhaul to support hundreds of students using completely could-based systems.

  12. I’ve been Technology Coordinator for Windows based districts and Mac based districts. Some things to keep in mind here: Macs, even with the school discount, are indeed more expensive and are NOT better designed. 1000.00 for a white macbook with 2 USB ports, no Mic port, no DVI / VGA port – in fact you need to buy a 60.00 adapter to even hook this into a projector or computer monitor – no user-replaceable battery…and no SD card port. Now you can pick up some of those features with a MB Pro…but then you’re adding hundreds more for features even the most basic windows platforms provide – no adapters, no hassle – not that you should get the basic model, but you can see the disparity.

    What this means: the basic tasks a student will need to perform – insert a USB drive, hookup to a projector, use headphones / microphones, take pictures out of a camera…cannot be performed on expensive “well designed” Mac hardware. At this point it actually DOES make a difference which technology the students are using for learning, a very distinct difference if the basic tasks performed on technology are poorly or completely incapable of being performed with Macs to begin with.

    The idea that students can easily switch between environments with “an hour of training” is absurd. As a professional educator certified in 2 states (PA instructional I K-12 Art Endoorsement, FL Professional Educators Certificate) I know how long it takes to deliver instruction, check for understanding, reinforce, and evaluate a student’s learning. Can a student figure out how to save a MS Office document on a Windows or Mac computer relatively easily? Yes. Can a student discover how to insert a USB Drive and copy a file from the drive to their shared folder in a few minutes – most of them could. But the majority would need more than an hour of familiarization with the environment to perform most tasks.

    From a maintenance perspective….you’re paying techs for MANY more hours to disassembly and reassemble iMacs and Macbooks to perform basic repairs such as hard disk, ram, and fan cleaning or replacement. The worst part about Macs – when something breaks (whether hardware or on the OS end), it takes much longer to fix. The longevity argument is defunct.

    From an ed tech point: virtually every task a student is going to perform at a library, job fair, college, etc. besides the no-brainers like logging into facebook or performing a Google search are performed on a Windows computer or mobile devices. Here I can see using Apple mobile devices, but not Apple computers. In the classroom – internet based software is the norm as opposed to locally installed software, and the licensing / maintenance costs are equal between Windows and Mac. For those that are locally installed they are almost entirely on the admin / support staff end and they are more compatible and supported in Windows environments.

    Virtualization and server technology is laughable at best on the Mac end, as the industry standard virtualization software – VMWare – isnt even available for Macs.

    The reality is the candy coated Mac platform doesnt solve business or education problems as dependably or economically, and in many cases actually impedes a child’s ability to learn due to compatibility and transferability issues.

    1. For the record, I was born and raised in Belfast, Maine and graduated
      from Belfast Area High School. I’m a certified Professional Educator,
      and work have worked in Technology for the past 8 years. I’m very
      familiar with technology in the school environment and which systems fit
      best with the classroom.

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