Apple’s New Annual Upgrade Cycle May Wreak Havoc On Schools



Apple’s announcement of Mountain Lion breaks with the past in a few ways including by announcing with out a major Apple event. One of the other changes is the news the Apple is moving OS X to a yearly release cycle like iOS. That may be a great way to introduce new features for consumers, but it’s likely to create problems for organizations that have a large number of Macs.

Schools and colleges are still among the organizations that have large Mac populations and have always been a key market for Apple. A yearly release schedule stands to impact them more than any other type of organization and that impact isn’t likely to be a positive one.

I’ve spent a fair amount of my career working with Macs in education as a consultant, trainer, and IT staff member. One of the biggest advantages that education IT enjoys over any business is the traditional school year schedule (or the typical fall/spring semester schedule in higher education). The period of one to two months when there’s few, if any, students and faculty on campus is a gold mine that lets IT work on major upgrades and projects.

Often those upgrades and projects include purchasing and deploying new equipment, software, and operating system updates – most of which have been vetted during the preceding semester to ensure that they work as expected. This makes it easy to complete large scale roll outs with confidence. By the time summer break arrives, most schools have already ordered their new Macs, PCs, iPads, software, and so forth.

Apple’s yearly release schedule plays havoc with this traditional roll out plan. The problem isn’t so much the yearly schedule as it is the time of year Apple seems to be preferring for launches: summer. Snow Leopard was released during the summer, so was Lion, and such is the plan for Mountain Lion. Even with preview or beta releases on hand, schools won’t be able to full vet Mountain Lion for use in time to design a smooth transition over this coming summer. Many still haven’t rolled out Lion because it launched in the middle of last summer.

In some ways that may not be a problem – many schools are used to making due with somewhat outdated resources (computers, software, textbooks, and so). In others it could be a big problem. Apple is moving pretty quickly and thoroughly to build out new technologies like iBooks Author, iBooks 2 textbooks, AirPlay, and many iCloud features. Being a year behind the curve is going to be problematic for teachers that want to take advantage of these new technologies. iBooks Author is a good example – it requires Lion. That means schools that have yet to deploy Lion can’t offer it to their faculty unless IT scrambles to provide Lion to a handful of computers or teachers use their personal Macs (provided they have personal Macs that are running or capable of Lion).

The capability to run Mountain Lion (and whatever Apple decides to dub OS X 10.9) is another challenge to schools. As we noted yesterday in our coverage of Mountain Lion’s announcement, there are a number of relatively recent Mac models that won’t be able to run it. Public schools and colleges (and even some private institutions) are facing record budget shortfalls. Even with Apple’s education purchase discounts and leasing options, there’s a big chance schools won’t be able to pay for major Mac system upgrades. If Apple ups the system requirements with each OS X release, that will mean schools could fall significantly behind in a year or two – choosing a summer release cycle may be the smallest issue schools face.

Of course, this could be part of an Apple strategy to shift education customers to the iPad and iBooks textbooks. These issues could add fuel to an argument to choose iPads over new MacBooks, for example. Of course, it could also add fuel to the argument to switch from Macs to Windows PCs.

  • joewaylo

    Nice of them to keep the Snow Leopard original background startup.

  • FriarNurgle

    Then they should stay an OS version behind like most businesses do with Windows. I’m still rocking XP at work and they are just now starting to *vomit* roll out Vista.  

  • Jordan Clay

     I’m pretty sure it is a stock image from Apples Back to School Promo

  • Forest Walker

    Ryan, you said it best in your article, most schools lag a version/iteration behind in tech anyway. Most new features of an OS upgrade are negligible, and those that are “must have” from Apple are usually a brand new idea or bleeding edge concept, that require widespread adoption before they are really worth buying into (app stores, iBooks, iBook Author etc).

  • Shaunathan Sprocket

    Yearly updates are incremental updates.  Meaning Organizations don’t need to update every year.  Sure iBooks author needs lion, but it doesn’t need mountain lion.  They’ll be good for a couple of years.  like Kr00 said, they’ll skip every second upgrade if it’s not 100% necessary.  

    As for downtime, schools are the easiest for that, with a summer break, heck even with the track system, you’ve got about 3 weeks to do the drive imaging.  Not hard if you use apple’s wonderful enterprise tools.  

    The only crime I see here is apple doesn’t promote his business tools enough.  It scares people and makes them jump to conclusions.

  • ??nD ??os??A

    Except for classes in computer science or maybe some of the high end arts (video and music editing) there is little reason for a school computer to need to be updated.  Especially in elementary school and middle school, the computer’s basic functionality is all that is needed.  I seriously down a school system wants to enable the latest iCloud features, they just want a solid platform for teaching. Social studies should be just as good on Snow Leopard as it is on Mountain Lion. Schools should be buying software from vendors that are not always requiring the latest and greatest. I seriously doubt a kid is going to learn more social studies or geology on a 64 bit OS versus a 32 bit one. 

  • nmkerr

    Schools will learn to adapt like the rest of us…we’re all riding the technology roller coaster.  Pretty soon one of the marks of a “good” school will be how nimble it is in supporting and deploying current tech.  When the train of innovation runs this fast, why would anyone want an education from an institution who can’t keep up?  Yes it’ll bring problems, but schools and businesses will figure it out.

  • jfc123

    if it rolls out in the summer doesnt it just take a sec 2 download it? they could do it in one day

  • RyanTV

    I’ve worked in educational IT for 9 years and at this point I can re-image my entire campus in 24 hours. That used to be a month’s worth of work. OS updates are not logistical nightmares that they used to be – the only real problem is that you typically have several years worth of different hardware throughout a campus – making sure everything is compatible can be a huge issue.

  • appliance5000

    I disagree.  Apple is speeding up the rate it makes its products obsolete. With lion for example:  you don’t have to upgrade but then you can’t use icloud to synch your computers.   To make sure that sticks they eliminate mobileme.

    This, plus the IOs OSX integration – has me disliking this company more and more.

    To stop supporting  a 3or 4 year old machine is an obscenity.

  • appliance5000

    When schools are suffering from chronic budget issues, and 1 in 4 children live in poverty , this seems – how’s nice way to put it? – to lack empathy.

  • nmkerr

    I fully understand the dire situation of funding for education, and I empahize with educators and school system IT managers who will be tasked to deploy new tech.  I’m simply reacting to what are the facts of the situation.  The march of progress in technology cannot be slowed, in fact will not be slowed, our only recourse will be to adapt as best we can, or be left behind.  It’s already happened, by the way.  In many (if not most) situations the tech that students carry in their packets vastly out performs the tech used in the classroom.  It has better content delivery capabilities, more computational power, and a more intuitive user experirnce.
    If we don’t figure out how to keep up the stats you lay out will only grow bigger, and the gulf between our eduction system and the rest of the world will grow wider.  We already have been bumped from the top ten in almost all core competencies (and in some cases the top 20).

  • joewaylo

    The government is still rocking XP too. I heard from IT they might go 7 next year. But I doubt it since most of our tech is XP ready. Not 7 ready.

  • appliance5000

    Well the way for schools to get money is to raise property taxes and distribute them in a fair way (schools in rich districts tend to be very good) – is this the sort of thing you would condone.  It’s a tough political sell.

  • Bob Forsberg

    Cloud updates and troubleshooting will make basic IT history.

  • nmkerr

    Do not attempt to make me the bad guy here for pointing out the reality of the situation.

  • appliance5000

    the point is that apple is accelerating the obsolescence of their products while selling them to school systems that can ill afford  this policy (let alone many of us regular users).  
    I’m not saying you’re a bad guy – I don’t know you – but your original comment was cavalier.  That’s what I was responding to.

  • inspireresponse

    I am a system administrator in charge of a the Macs for the district I work for. We have approx. 5000 Mac computers and 600 iOS devices which is growing.

    This is so not a problem. I am surprised that he could write an article about it. The summer or vacation breaks aren’t the only times you can install and upgrade. There are many upgrade options that don’t even need physical access and do everything in the background.

    I do know that it may be a problem for some of you IT administrators. But the fact is things ar getting easier to manage and sometimes you have to change your ingrained workflow and make things work.

    But this is not going to be a problem unless you make it a problem.

    Good luck to all of you.

    This is such an exciting time to be a part of the tech world. Especially if you specialize in Apple technology