In my position, rarely does a day go by without some vendor hawking the latest non-Microsoft device that will solve all of our computing problems. Whether they are iPads, Chromebooks, Kindles, or Android-based, they all share one thing in common: none of them run Windows. These vendors (Apple excluded) almost always share the same pitch as well, focusing on how much lower their per-device cost is versus an equivalent Windows device, and how that lower purchase price will allow us to put more technology in the hands of students.
Obviously it doesn’t take any technical knowledge to recognize one can purchase more $199 Kindles than $499 Windows tablets given a fixed amount of dollars, but to only consider the capital expenditure is a mistake. The reality is that for an organization that already supports Windows (i.e. everyone), bringing in a new non-Windows platform will substantially add to support costs and other operational expenses. There are also significant issues surrounding device limitations and user experience that must also be considered.
Now before I go any further, let me own up to the fact that yes, I’m a strong Microsoft proponent. Detractors would probably consider me a “fanboi,” but I speak from experience, not blind devotion. I’ve used many of the other platforms out there. I’ve supported OSX, installed and run Linux on the desktop, currently manage a number of Linux servers, own two iPads, and heck, I even ran OS/2 Warp and was anti-Microsoft for a while. I have no problem calling out Microsoft when they do something stupid, but the reality is Windows can do pretty much anything you need it to, and generally does it pretty well.
Back to the topic at hand, it’s difficult to explain the hidden costs of ‘cheap’ devices to non-technical people because they typically don’t even recognize all of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into keeping an environment running smoothly. Whether Microsoft or not, things like user authentication, device lockdown policies, OS and software deployment, anti-virus, content filter integration, and many other systems are absolutely essential yet completely invisible to end-users. A new platform means new ways are needed to satisfy these needs, and often means purchasing new software solutions to do so.
The irony is the better job an organization does supporting Windows, the higher the incremental cost of introducing a non-Windows platform. Why? Consider software installation: if you’re still (shudder!) doing this manually, it doesn’t make a huge difference if you’re doing so on a Windows PC or an Android tablet. But if you’ve automated the process using a deployment solution, you lose all of that efficiency when working on another platform. Similarly, if you don’t lock down your Windows PCs then you may not care about doing so on other devices, but if you currently use group policy to control what users can and cannot do, losing that functionality may be unacceptable and having to learn a new system to replicate it takes a lot of time.
And time, as they say, is money. Or more specifically staff. IT departments are continually asked to do more with fewer people, and it’s precisely the efficiency gained through automated processes that allow many IT departments to survive with skeleton staffs. Any organization that introduces a new non-Windows platform needs to be willing to hire additional staff to support it. That’s irrespective of the quantity of devices purchased; it’s simply the addition of a new platform that triggers the additional workload, NOT the volume of those new devices. Good IT departments design systems to scale, so adding more of the same devices is a relatively trivial task, while adding even a small number of new devices is far more complicated.
There is also often a steep user learning curve when new platforms are introduced. Even someone who may be familiar with using an iPad (for example) is going to have to learn how that device integrates with the organization’s network, how authentication to network resources is handled, how (or if) web content is filtered, how common file formats are (or are not) read, etc. This all results in lost productivity, further eroding the theoretical “savings” of these low-cost devices.
Finally, the dramatic loss of flexibility compared to a Windows device cannot be ignored either. Any non-Windows device is only going to be able to offer a subset of the functionality of a Windows PC. That may be fine if all one cares about is browsing the web, but inevitably once a device is purchased, the end-user or organization wants to do more with it. “We just want to do x” with a device turns into “well, we want to do y as well” and then “what do you mean we can’t do z?” For instance, we have a heavily used web-based system of which 90% will run fine on an iPad, but that last 10% requires Java. If the user doesn’t care about that last 10% the iPad is perfectly fine, but once they do, you have an expensive paperweight because it simply cannot run the full application. I’ve seen this scenario manifest itself time and time again. Sacrificing flexibility at the altar of cost savings is fine right up until you need your cheap device to do something it can’t.
In “Economics in One Lesson,” famed economist Henry Hazlitt speaks to the difficulties in measuring or recognizing unseen costs. It is far easier to see a bridge being built, he says, than to appreciate the things that didn’t happen because money was taken to build that bridge. In the same fashion, it is far easier to see how many more devices can be purchased by going with a low-cost alternative than to recognize the inevitable increase in operational expenses and lost productivity that results from introducing a new, non-Windows platform. Once one factors in those additional costs it becomes apparent that while low-cost non-Windows devices may seem like a bargain, they simply trade one set of expenses for another, and sacrifice flexibility in the process.
Save the Kindle for reading romance novels and the iPad for playing Angry Birds; love it or hate it, Windows remains the best and most economical choice for getting actual work done.