Cloudy Vista Ahead?

Colleges across the country are slow to upgrade to new Windows operating system for a variety of reasons, including compatibility and value.
March 26, 2008

At Bowdoin College, about half of the computers are Macs, and half are PCs. When Apple released the latest version of OS X in October, professors with Macs immediately swamped the IT department to ask about the long-awaited Leopard. But after Windows Vista, the latest version of Microsoft's operating system, came out over a year ago, there were no such requests.

“It’s not like the users are clamoring for us to use it,” said Mitchel Davis, the college's chief information officer.

Bowdoin, like many other colleges, is not aggressively upgrading its computers and laboratories to Vista, reflecting ambivalence across academe (as well as many businesses) about the operating system's compatibility with older software and hardware, and its worth relative to its cost.

"What’s the value?" Davis continued. "You’re going to have training issues, you’re going to have all kinds of issues ... and when you do it, what do you get?"

Of course, at some point or another both price and availability will necessitate purchasing Vista, even as copies of its predecessor, Windows XP, are still currently available. Most new computers come pre-installed with Vista, meaning that eventually, a natural upgrade cycle will complete itself as new computers replace the older ones on campus, both in dorm rooms and in labs. But on many campuses so far, IT directors aren't taking a more active role than that.

Gary O. Roberts, director of information technology services at Alfred University, took an informal poll on a listserv of CIOs and found that the vast majority of an admittedly small sample had not and did not plan on upgrading to Vista within the next four to six months. Twenty-eight respondents said they hadn't upgraded, compared with five who had; in the next four to six months, six planned on switching their campuses to Vista compared with 25 who didn't.

Roberts added that a small number were "very enthusiastic about it." The campuses that hadn't upgraded included a mix of types of institutions, from small colleges to Alfred to the University of Pennsylvania. (Alfred plans on making the upgrade in the next four to six months.)

"There are some institutions who are certainly moving forward with [the upgrade], and on the leading edge of those things, but there's lots of them who are concerned with the cost of deployment, the additional hardware ...," said John Van Weeren, product manager for technology at Datatel, who works with the company's clients in higher education. (Microsoft could not immediately supply figures about Vista's penetration in the higher education market.)

Those deployment costs aren't negligible. The University of California-Davis, for example, embarked on a volunteer "campus-wide compatibility testing effort" to test how well Vista works with existing software and hardware. Such testing is routine for major software upgrades, especially for Vista, which has created compatibility problems with many older programs and with computers that lack sufficient RAM or hard drive space or simply aren't fast enough.

Roberts said his staff found problems on Vista computers running the course management software Blackboard and SunGard's Banner, a popular "enterprise resource planning" tool that supports college financial aid, enrollment management and other functions. He said that the main problem appeared to be with the prepackaged browser, Internet Explorer 7, and that other IT officials had run into similar problems.

Such issues are often fixed in service upgrades, even if those patches introduce glitches of their own. Like Windows XP before it, which caused headaches when its first service pack destabilized some computers in 2002, Vista's first major patch, SP1, has caused some colleges to hold off on further upgrades. The University of Pennsylvania is adopting a three-month "cooling off" period, for example, urging its students not to install SP1 until all "bugs" are addressed.


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