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Editor's Note: Shuckin' and Jivin'

Dec 01, 2006, 23:30 (7 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

As some of you may recall, I am a native resident of Indiana and very proud of it. So I took it a little personally when I read the CRN story about the IDC study that revealed that Indiana school districts still prefer to purchase Windows desktops over Linux desktops, when given the choice.

Let me clue you in on something about Hoosiers: we don't really like a lot of shuck and jive--which is exactly what this analyst report is. Actually, I would use a more colorful epithet, but I was raised better.

When I first read the story, my initial reaction was of course Windows is still preferred--the Linux project was a pilot for about 22,000 laptops and 1,600 desktops, sponsored by Linspire and Novell. While I don't know the exact total number of computers used in Indiana schools, I think that, right now, it's a safe bet to say that a vast majority of those machines are still Windows and Mac devices.

So, the premise of the whole analyst report was flawed, since to me it was akin to a hypothetical analysis done at the end of the 19th Century, where wagon maker commissioned a report that indicated that yes, indeed, a vast majority of the world's population still used horse-drawn carriages. Clearly, such a report would imply, this newfangled horseless carriage would amount to nothing.

But as I read further into the story, I realized that this wasn't just a case of Microsoft trying to play the obvious "sky-is-blue" argument so early in the life of a Linux pilot deployment. No, this was no case of using providentially timed truth: this was a case of outright deception.

Here's what tipped me off: "In the study, the Government Insights unit of research firm IDC conducted in-depth interviews with five Indiana school districts that are opting to spend their own funds to continue installing Microsoft software."

This wording implies that there are (at least) five school corporations who are defying the DoE's ACCESS Indiana program that is rolling out Linux desktops and are using their own funds to buck that program and buy Windows machines instead. Clearly a case of the downtrodden schools overriding the ill-conceived Linux notions of big government and sticking it to the man with a grass-roots Windows movement. It's enough to warm your heart, isn't it?

It just gives me heartburn.

What IDC and the report's sponsor in Redmond are hoping you don't notice is the fact that in Indiana all school districts are responsible for their own IT spending. There is no central IT funding from the state. The Department of Education set the minimum IT standards and curriculum for the entire state, which all of the 348 public school corporations are required to follow. What they choose to buy and what they can afford to buy is based solely on each corporation's IT budget and the personal preferences of each corporation's IT manager.

ACCESS Indiana is a program designed to provide more than just guidelines to the various school districts--its purpose is to get schools with very limited IT budgets (and Indiana, that's pretty much all of them) inexpensive access to the necessary machines and software so the schools can go beyond the minimum guidelines. If the pilot program proves successful, then IT managers in the various school districts should see a chance to expand the scale of their schools' IT footprint and stay in their meager budgets.

The reason why these five school districts are not choosing to go to Linux cannot have anything to do with the ACCESS program, which the report intimates. It's likely that these IT managers are more familiar with Microsoft technology and don't want to try something newfangled. In fact, given that IDC disclosed that these managers were selected for interview by Microsoft itself, I think "likely" gets upgraded to "take it to the bank."

To imply that they chose not to go into the ACCESS is completely wrong: ACCESS is in pilot mode and is not yet available to Indiana's 310,316 secondary school students. The choice is not available yet. One wonders what will happen when the pilot goes into fully operational mode. IDC isn't wondering: they're simply reporting on the here and now, where clearly Linux is not yet being deployed on wide scale.

Like I said, shuck and jive.

Now, to be completely fair, I can tell you that there could indeed be a hurdle for ACCESS when it shifts gears, one which the IDC report indicated, but they seemed not to notice: there are, in the public school systems, a high percentage of IT managers who really don't have a lot of formal IT training. There are 348 public school districts in the Hoosier State, and of those, I would bet that only 80-90 actually have a full-time, trained IT professional on staff. The rest are either using homegrown experts or outside consultants. Consultants who are probably Microsoft Certified Professionals.

This means that even if the ACCESS pilot program is wildly successful in costs and stability, there's going to be a lack of IT workers who will be willing or able to manage a Linux environment. It's a harsh reality, but it's going to be true nonetheless. The DoE, Novell, and Linspire have recognized this, but finding qualified Linux support personnel in Indiana could be a challenge, at least to start.

I personally believe the potential benefits of shifting away from Microsoft will ultimately encourage the local school boards to look a bit harder for the support and training they need--especially when you consider the ticking time bomb that Microsoft faces in almost every public school system on the planet, not just Indiana. The name of that time bomb is Vista.

Vista, when it finally rolls out for public consumption, will have minimum requirements that are so high that many schools, which try to get by on the oldest hardware possible in order to stretch their IT , will simply be unable to make the upgrade. Faced with that reality, and a need to try to keep up-to-date software and security, schools will be looking very hard at alternatives like Linux.

This is something Microsoft must know is coming, which is why it is trying to discredit any existing efforts to deploy Linux in schools, like ACCESS. Fortunately in this case, we don't have to buy what they are trying to sell.


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