Emory Report

April 5, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 26

Technology source:

Recognize those funky new computer kiosks? They're iMacs

Those of you who walk around the Dobbs Center, White Hall, Rich Building or Cox Hall may have noticed that Information Technology Division has replaced the old kiosk computers with iMacs. All around campus, iMacs are available for faculty, staff and students to check e-mail on the spot.

The old kiosk program came into existence in 1994. The Cox Hall Computing Lab was open, but there were not enough computers for everyone who wanted to use them. To free up lab computers for typing papers and research, ITD installed walk-up computers in the Cox lobby so people could quickly check e-mail. Because no money was budgeted for the program, retired computers were used for equipment. The program was successful and provided needed relief in the Cox Lab, but it also promoted an atmosphere that allowed people to stay in touch by checking e-mail often. Since the start of the program, ITD has opened a new location each year.

By the fall of 1998 there were 35 computers operating as kiosks. Because the practice of using retired computers from the labs continued, the computers used in the kiosks barely met the hardware minimum for running current versions of software. Complicating the problem was the fact that all the computers were different. Consequently, the service became unsupportable. To stabilize service, 35 identical computers were needed--each with fast processors, great graphics, lots of disk space and an easy connect to the network.

Enter the iMac. The iMac was the least expensive computer that met those criteria. The only two drawbacks for the iMac--the absence of a floppy drive and the fact that it is not highly upgradeable--turn out to be a non-issue for this program. The absence of a floppy drive prevents people from saving things at kiosks--a desirable aspect--and use is so frequent that ITD expects to replace them every two years.

The largest problem faced in the switch to iMacs was security. Because iMacs are new to the market, the only security options available were untested. Unlike the standard desktop Macs that served as kiosks in the past, iMacs are self-contained units with no facilities for locking them down using standard cabling. The final solution was a lockdown plate device in which the iMac itself is attached. The plate is inserted into another plate, which is attached to the desk. So far, we can happily report that the security plate system is a success--no iMacs have disappeared. Losses have been mostly limited to mouseballs, which seem to be a very popular item. Also, one keyboard took a bath in Coca-Cola and had to be replaced.

Other than these physical problems--expected because of the highly public nature of a kiosk station--trouble has been primarily due to software issues regarding constant use. Occasional lockups and system failures caused by a memory problem have been corrected, and a few problems were caused by people tweaking the computer settings themselves, but so far there has been no malicious misuse. One student even changed the desktop background to a picture of himself skiing but was kind enough to include his name and e-mail address at the bottom of the picture.

Our good friend Howard Rollins asked why Macintosh was chosen over the Windows platform. In this case, the platform is inconsequential. This is simply an Internet access device. We occasionally ask the people using the computers how they like them. About one out of five users say that they wish it were a Windows computer, but most don't even comment on the platform. In another unscientific survey, we counted users at the White Hall kiosks in a five-minute span between classes. In that time 17 "student-looking" people and two "faculty-looking" people walked up, used a computer and left.

Most iMac feedback is very positive, and just the fact that there are now fast, fully functional computers at kiosks is a major improvement. In the future ITD intends to work on stabilizing the service. If you have suggestions, such as additional software or locations for the kiosk iMacs, please e-mail <LEARNTECH@LISTSERV.CC.EMORY.EDU>.

Susan Mistretta and Jack McKinney work in Learning Technologies for ITD.

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