The Great OS Experiment

The Great OS Experiment

A celebrity CIO reviews the desktop operating system contenders in search of the next-generation office computer

"Being a CIO [today] is a lot harder than it was two years ago," says Halamka. Users don't tolerate even three minutes of downtime, he says, and IT budgets aren't growing with users' demand for bandwidth and storage. "CIOs who are budget constrained have to ask themselves if their organizations could save a couple hundred thousand dollars a year by using an open-source product that's almost like Microsoft office," he says. "This is about making sure industry can do what it needs to do better, faster, cheaper and more reliably."

A Month on a Mac

Configuration: Intel-based MacBook running OS X with Apple's Safari Web browser, Microsoft's Entourage e-mail application, Apple's Pages 2 desktop publishing system for word processing and Apple's Keynote presentation application.

What he liked: Like many CIOs, Halamka was predisposed to think that Apple computers aren't enterprise class. However, he learned during his month using the MacBook that the Apple Remote Desktop management system offers many of the features IT departments would need to roll out a fleet of Macs enterprise-wide, including tools for configuring applications, controlling what software is installed on desktops and applying upgrades. He also learned from some friends who are Mac power users how to tweak the Mac's underlying file structure — something desktop administrators will have to know to support users. (Apple deliberately hides the complexity of its file structure from users so that they don't have to spend time administrating their computers and organizing their files.)

Another characteristic of the MacBook that helps with IT support and administration is its reliability. Halamka prized the fact that his MacBook didn't crash or freeze once during the month he used it. And his work was never interrupted by automatic antivirus or antispyware updates — a frequent annoyance with Windows.

Because Halamka travels an average of four days each month, remote e-mail access is of paramount importance to him, as it is to any other frequent flier. He had easy access to his Entourage e-mail during the eight days he travelled while using the MacBook once his IT department made a small change to CareGroup's firewall. Because Entourage uses the public Internet and the WebDAV protocol for online collaboration and file management, Halamka didn't need a separate VPN log-in to get his e-mail (messages are encrypted using SSL).

Access to all internally developed Web-based software using his Safari browser was also problem-free because his IT group builds all home-grown applications to work with any browser. And when he was on the go, OS X switched flawlessly from one wireless network to another, which he thinks makes the MacBook a great tool for mobile knowledge workers. The MacBook never skipped a beat as he went from a meeting at Harvard (which uses the WPA/PEAP wireless network) to a meeting at CareGroup (which uses EAP-FAST client) to an informal meeting at Starbucks (which uses a public network).

In addition to his CIO duties, Halamka is involved in a number of extracurricular IT-related initiatives (including serving as chairman of the national Healthcare IT Standards Panel). As part of his work, he gives 150 lectures or presentations each year. Thus, he needs an effective tool for creating presentations. He found what he needed in Keynote, which he finds refreshingly simple compared with PowerPoint.

Keynote doesn't offer all the special effects for which PowerPoint is famous. Consequently, Halamka found the application forced him to focus more on his message and the points he wanted to make on each slide rather than on whether he wanted a sound to accompany each slide change. This is not to say that Halamka's presentations were boring, or text-heavy. Macs are known for their multimedia capabilities, and he took advantage of these, incorporating digital audio and video into a lecture he gave on mushroom poisoning.

Finally, as a power user of search, Halamka grew fond of Spotlight, the search function on the MacBook that indexes and searches for all content on the 80GB hard drive. It even searches and indexes Entourage e-mail, which is stored on the hard drive.

What he disliked: In April, Apple announced its support for the Windows operating system on its machines. The move was designed to convert Windows users to stylish Mac hardware. Considering so many businesses are Microsoft shops, IT industry observers thought Apple's support of Windows might win over some corporate customers. But Halamka found running Windows on his MacBook "slightly finicky".

Mac users have two options for running Windows: Apple's Bootcamp, which requires a reboot each time you want to switch from OS X to XP, or Parallels, which enables XP to run within OS X but was problematic when switching between wired and wireless connections. He found he had to renew his IP address whenever he entered Parallels to ensure the IP address would be successfully renegotiated. Because of these inconveniences, Halamka gave up on running Windows XP and most of its attendant applications on his MacBook and used the MacBook's software suite instead. He found that to be adequate with one exception: some Windows-centric commercial browser-based apps, such as a radiology system from General Electric, wouldn't run in Safari. They use ActiveX controls that work only in Internet Explorer.

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