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Computer Cleansing

[whitespace] Phil Erskine & Mac
Christopher Gardner

Lone Ranger: Phil Erskine, the last Mac tech support employee at Santa Clara University, has watched the number of Mac users dwindle.

The computer preference police are on the prowl at local universities, with systems policy makers and peers quietly sparring over the age-old question: Mac or PC?

By Michael Learmonth

BACK WHEN PHIL KESTEN became a professor at Santa Clara University in 1990, the particle physicist was a true Macintosh believer. "No one used IBMs in my field," he says. "You were either using a Unix machine or a Macintosh."

To his dismay, he found a campus with a deeply entrenched network of computers that used Intel chips to run Microsoft Windows.

"It was strictly an IBM house," Kesten remembers. "A few faculty had Macs but they were underground."

But then Kesten got appointed to the newly formed Technology Steering Committee and things started to change. First, he helped draft a campus policy that Macs would be supported equally with PCs. It only seemed to make sense. At the time, Macs were clearly the better machines and PCs couldn't come close to offering the kind of graphical modeling Kesten needed for his academic work.

What's more, students and faculty loved them. Apple co-founder Mike Markkula became a visible benefactor on campus when he funded the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. His daughter, who was a student at the time, urged Kesten to establish ties with Apple. Soon Macs were on the shelves of the campus bookstore.

"Until 1995 there was a general trend of bringing Macs on campus," Kesten says. But between now and then, Kesten's had a dramatic change of heart. Once a Mac enthusiast, Kesten is now leading the charge to chase Macs out of the offices of faculty and staff on campus.

"I hate to be the one to reverse the trend; however, it costs a lot of money to support both platforms," Kesten says. "We just can't afford to support both equally."

Though he couches it as an economic issue, it's clear that since Kesten's Mac-using days he's soured on the machine. And while the pretty colors of the iMac and the G3 have brought Apple's stock price roaring back and reversed the downward trend in its market share, the marketing campaign hasn't quite worked on Kesten. In fact, it seems to have pissed him off.

"In my opinion they lost all credibility when they posted all those billboards that were grammatically incorrect," Kesten says. On his office door he posts his own slogan: "Think Grammatic."

Today, Macintosh users at Santa Clara University have dwindled to 8 percent, says Carl Fussle, director of information technology.

"There are some areas where Macs are still very good platforms, even preferred platforms, so it's not a move to get rid of Macs," Fussle says. "It's just that PC demand is up and Mac demand, except in special cases, is quite down."

But then there's intensifying peer pressure on casual Mac users to give up their machines and join the collective.

One of the new programs instituted by the Technology Steering Committee is the PC Replacement Program which replaces every desktop on campus every four years. The campus signed a lucrative lease deal with Dell Computer and can leverage better prices from vendors when they purchase or lease 400 or 500 machines a year. When replacement time comes around, the administration turns the screws on the remaining Mac users.

"When their machines are up for replacement, we say we'll give you another, but please think about it," Kesten says. "If you're a Mac user and you switch to IBM, we'll give you a gold star."

Implementing the policy is Lai-San Malmquist, who says she has the gold stars in her desk, though she hasn't given many out lately. Normally, she says, computers are replaced according to their vintage: the oldest get replaced first. But if a Mac user wants to go PC, she'll make the swap even if the Mac is relatively new.

But art department chairman Kelly Detweiler says that allowing his students to graduate without Mac skills would cripple them when it came time to apply for jobs and internships in the art and design industry.

Nevertheless, he says, quite a few of Santa Clara's PC apostles raised their voices in opposition when he wanted to create an all-Mac lab for the art department.

"There were people who were very critical when I was trying to set up a graphics lab," he says. "There are people who are so pro-PC they don't understand why anyone would bother with anything else."

IN JUNE 1997, back in the midst of Apple's darkest days, Yale University sent a letter to incoming freshmen that provoked a flurry of responses to the Yale Daily News and an indignant column by Macworld staffer and Yale alumnus David Pogue.

"Dear incoming student," the letter said. "You are strongly encouraged to select a Windows PC, which was the choice of over 75 percent of first-year student computer owners in 1996-1997. Owing to uncertainties about the availability of software for Apple operating systems, the University cannot guarantee support for Macintoshes beyond June 2000."

At the time, many universities were going that direction, though few put it so bluntly in writing. But since then Apple's share price has rebounded and it introduced the iMac, which became the top-selling personal computer last year. Apple Computer won't give out market share numbers, but Dataquest measures Apple's market share as rebounding slightly from 4.2 percent in 1997 to 4.5 percent in 1998. Despite the low market share, Apple is still the world's seventh-largest computer maker and shipped 1.7 million units last year.

But Apple's market share continues to slide in educational institutions. Apple had 27 percent of that market in 1997 and 19 percent in 1998.

Those numbers are reflected in the statistics at San Jose State University, which, while less biased against Macs than Santa Clara University, remains a staunchly pro-PC campus. Says William Nance, associate vice president for instruction and research services: "The colleges try to move people to PCs whenever possible."

At San Jose State, PC use is over 70 percent and the computer labs are typically 80 to 85 percent PC. While Nance says the university continues to support Macs, there will be inconveniences for Mac users.

"Typically you see things like higher levels of support [for PCs]," he says. Many faculty choose to switch to be compatible with colleagues.

"People say, if I don't switch, my life is going to be more difficult collaboratively, even if I'd personally rather have a Mac," he says.

At San Jose State, the bottom line is the high cost of supporting both platforms.

"You don't have to duplicate software and the tech support people don't have to learn multiple skill sets," Nance says.

BUT SOME CAMPUSES don't see multiple platforms as such an inconvenience. At De Anza College, always a Mac-dominant campus, the introduction of the iMac solidified things for the near future.

"Our administration has always used Macs," says William Pritchard, director of technology. Pritchard is in the midst of replacing all the campus computers in three phases ending next fall. Since he started offering iMacs and G3 towers to staff, he says, "I don't see any more attrition."

Even though the iMac wasn't an option for the first two phases of the computer replacement program, Mac users made up 60 percent of the faculty and staff.

Recently, Stanford University's computer support staff has noticed a resurgence of Macs on their network of 35,000 computers.

"In the last few years we were steering people toward PCs, but now that Apple has revived itself we support both," says Jan Cicero, director of Stanford's customer resource center. "It's more where our users are coming from. If our users want to use that as their tool of choice, it behooves us to support them."

When Phil Erskine got back from a two-day vacation Wednesday, he had 12 messages on his voicemail--an email problem here, a crashed hard drive there--all typical calls for the 47-year-old computer support man at Santa Clara University.

Except that Erskine is the last Mac specialist on campus. And more and more, he says, he's being asked to pinch-hit on PCs.

"He's kind of maxed out," says Detweiler of Erskine, who can often be seen running across campus, various disk drives, cords and plugs in tow.

"My specialty is Mac," Erskine says. "There aren't many of us around."

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From the June 10-16, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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