NASA platform battle gets rough

The battle over replacing the more than 3500 Macintoshes at NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Centre in Houston is getting nasty. Ardent Macintosh users are campaigning to keep their workstations against an information systems manager who wants to standardise on Windows PCs

The battle over replacing the more than 3500 Macintoshes at NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Centre in Houston is getting nasty. Ardent Macintosh users are campaigning to keep their workstations against an information systems manager who wants to standardise on Windows PCs.

The battle began more than a year ago when Johnson's Chief Information Officer John Garman issued an order that would replace the centre's Apple Macintoshes with Intel-based PCs running Windows 95. The sprawling space center already has more than 7500 Windows machines.

In the past year, angry Macintosh users launched a highly publicized protest that enlisted the support of congressman Tom Delay (Republican of Texas). Protesters also deluged Daniel Goldin, a former NASA CIO, with electronic mail. But most users acted anonymously for fear of losing their jobs.

In the past month, the pro-Macintosh and pro-Wintel camps both have posted small victories.

NASA's Office of Space Flight Safety and Mission Assessment concluded on December 16 that the space center's information technology handbook didn't need to specify Windows 95 as its required operating system for desktop computers. That could leave room for the MacOS to keep its foothold.

But the same office the previous week rejected arguments from Macintosh users that switching to PCs would compromise flight safety.

The safety argument is one of several points NASA Macintosh users have pushed.

For example, Macintosh advocates have accused Garman of rewriting regulations and ignoring cost/benefit studies in order to standardize on Intel-based PCs that run Windows 95. Before he acquired several PCs, Garman was given a report from Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut, that indicated that the purchase of 3,500 Macintoshes would cost US$2.5 million less when amortized over a five-year period than buying the same number of Windows 95 machines.

Macintosh users' cost/benefit argument won backing from a report by the Office of the Inspector General. It charged that Garman's move to use Windows 95 as the standard desktop operating system wasn't cost-effective and didn't consider users' requirements.

For users, the fear of retribution if they speak up about their concerns is causing anxiety, some say. "It's really frustrating not to be able to voice your opinion of the situation without worrying about retribution," says a Macintosh user at the space center, who asked not to be named.

A Macintosh user at Lewis Research Centre in Cleveland says he sympathizes with the Johnson Space Center Macintosh users' plight. "I would fight like heck to keep the Macintoshes in here if anything like that ever happened. But I'm not so sure it would be worth losing my job over it."

A November inspector general's report found evidence of "disturbing" behavior on the part of Johnson Space Centre officials against users who questioned the policy. A user who asked not to be identified said a supervisor threatened him with time-card violations, which are considered a serious offense at NASA.

Don Andreotta, NASA's deputy CIO for operations, said the space center's battle over Macintoshes is just a policy issue. 'This is not a religious war. This is more a question of how decisions were made," Andreotta said.

The answers likely will be all about politics.

Keith Cowing, president of Reston Communications and publisher of "NASA RIF Watch," an online newsletter in Reston, Virginia, says because politics are prevalent at NASA, it is likely that Garman has enough clout to move all of Johnson Space Centre to Windows if he wants to.

Several NASA entities are looking into how Garman arrived at his Windows PC decision and if that decision complied with NASA regulations. An official report on the situation is due March 7.

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