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

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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In some ways that may not be a problem – many schools are used to making due with somewhat outdated resources (computers, software, textbooks, and so).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.