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

Maintaining a locked-down desktop has worked out OK so far, though it sometimes requires accommodation by his colleagues. He decided not to use Visio for creating or viewing diagrams of process flows and org charts because even though it's now a Microsoft product (Visio was acquired in 1999), it includes dynamic link libraries (DLLs) that cause instability and conflicts with other applications. And so when someone sends him a Visio file, he asks them to send him a .jpeg of whatever they want him to look at instead.

At the time this story was reported, Halamka had maintained his laptop in this static state for two months. He realizes he may have to add Visio (especially if colleagues tire of sending him .jpegs), but he says he's still going to try to keep his applications to a minimum.

For the user community at large, however, controlling what's on the desktop isn't realistic. In the hospital, which has to abide by the regulations outlined in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, users are more willing to accept a controlled desktop computing environment, Halamka says. But for Harvard Medical School's 18,000 faculty members, dictating what they can use on the desktop is an exercise in futility. You can't tell a Nobel laureate what applications they can and can't run, he says. They'll "run whatever they think will make them the most productive", regardless of the headaches this causes the IT department.

>> For a second opinion, see "Compatibility at a Price"

Moving Towards Macs for the Enterprise

After three months of experimentation and comparison, Halamka concluded that his dream machine is a Dell D420 notebook that runs OS X. Unfortunately, such a machine doesn't currently exist out of the box.

He prefers Dell's hardware over Apple's because it weighs 1.36 kilos less than the 2.27-kilo MacBook he toted around for a month, and it emits far less heat. "[That's] the only thing preventing me from using the Mac," he says.

He prefers OS X's security, reliability and simple user interface over that of XP. And though he still has high hopes for running a version of Linux that is reliable and full-featured, he hasn't found an OS that's up to the task. (He says that SUSE on the Lenovo T60 may be the answer, since it will be the first commercial laptop with Linux configured and supported by the manufacturer.) But until Apple develops a lighter-weight laptop or decides to license its software for installation on other machines, Halamka is sticking with XP on his D420 for professional use. For personal use, he's keeping the MacBook. Having two computers — one for work and one for play — is a change for Halamka, who used one computer for both prior to this experiment.

Nevertheless, Halamka did take the first steps toward deploying Macs in the enterprise. Before this experiment, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre employees could use only PCs. But Halamka has changed the hospital's official computer purchasing policy to allow the use of Macs, with the understanding that medical centre workers may not get as much support for their Macs as they get for their PCs. Halamka simply doesn't yet have enough Mac experts on his staff.

Meanwhile, at Harvard Medical School, which has a separate IT staff and different purchasing policies, 50 percent of desktops are already Macs. Halamka has promised Mac users the same level of service and functionality to which Windows users are accustomed. For instance, Mac users at the medical school had trouble maintaining access to their centralized storage, which was not designed for use by Macs. So Halamka purchased Macintosh servers that sit in front of the centralized storage, and Mac users now connect to it via these servers.

Although he has no immediate plans to replace any Windows desktops with Macs, Halamka says he's going to watch the price and performance of Apple's newest OS, Leopard, which Apple is scheduled to release in this northern spring. If Leopard offers better administration tools than OS X and is more tightly integrated both with Outlook and with Microsoft's Exchange server, Halamka would be more inclined to initiate the broader use of Macs. He would want such improvements to ensure that Leopard users won't encounter as many of the problems he ran into accessing his Outlook calendar and delegation functions.

Halamka says testing alternatives to XP has been a valuable exercise because it made him realize that the Mac can be a viable computing platform for enterprise users.

"I used to think that the Macintosh was something used by free spirits just to be different," he says. "Now I realize the Mac has such superior human factor engineering that it's used by people because they can be more productive. If Apple comes up with a one kilo 12-inch-screen laptop that runs cool, has better integration with Exchange, and if Vista turns out to be the beast it could be, then I probably will move to a Mac."

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