Is there a difference between an "Administrator" and a "person with an admin account"?


Yuhong Bao pointed me to his blog post (about Raymond’s post “The admin is an idiot“) which referenced this snippet from an Apple Style Guide:

To maintain the distinction between professional administrators and
Mac OS X users with administrator accounts, avoid using the noun
administrator by itself to describe a person who has an administrator
account in Mac OS X. Instead, say an admin user or a user with an
administrator account-typically, the owner (or owners) of a particular 
Macintosh computer.

Yuhong’s comment was that maybe we need to differentiate the professional administrator from someone who happens to be running as an admin.

I’m not sure that there’s any meaningful difference, unfortunately, except for the fact that the professional administrator hopefully has more training (this is not always guaranteed unfortunately).

Except in certain environments (mostly large corporations), the idea of a professional administrator is essentially gone.  Back before my mom retired, she ran a number of professional organizations (the last of which was the Society of Women Engineers).  All of these organizations had relatively small offices – essentially your typical small business.  There were a half a dozen full time employees, and they didn’t have the budget to have an administrator.  Instead they contracted out with a company to setup and troubleshoot their email servers (which sat in a storage room in the office).  They treated the systems as same way they treated the HVAC – the box sat there in the corner doing its thing, and (just like the HVAC system), they called in the professionals when it broke (and paid about the same obscene hourly rate as they would for the HVAC repair).  But for the half dozen or so computers in the office, the various people working there managed them themselves.

Raymond’s right – these days users are expected to perform all of the tasks that were normally associated with a professional administrator.  The professional administrator (or BOFH if you’d rather) of many machines is the 12 year old kid that lives next door (or the person who rides at your barn whose husband happens to have worked at Microsoft for a long time :)).

For consumer operating systems, there is no meaningful distinction between a professional administrator and a user with admin rights.

I believe that the Apple style guide quote is an attempt to make this clear – when you use the word “Administrator”, it implies that the comment applies only to professional administrators, and not your riding instructor, when in fact it does apply to her, she just doesn’t know it.

Comments (24)

  1. Peter Ritchie says:

    I would wholeheartedly agree that there should be a distinction.  Especially considering up until Vista, by default everyone was an Administrator if you define "Administrator" as someone running as admin.  A message appearing in XP Home Edition saying "Contact an administrator" basically means the user.  If they’re not a professional administrator they don’t know *they are* the administrator; so a distinction needs to be made.

    Besides, if a home user pays someone to manage some of the IT tasks for the computer (like removing virii) then "and administrator might mean something to them, and it’s not the person who happens to have admin rights.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Unices suffer from the same sorts of problems.  Though the steps are different, you still end up with some of the same catch-22 scenarios.  I like the steps recent MS offerings have taken to remove the need to run as Administrator all the time, but maybe a Windows version of chroot is the way to go.

    I don’t think we’ll ever solve this problem till there’s a compelling Web based OS used for internet transactions (i.e. web browsing, listening to music subscription services, etc.)

  3. I’d almost be willing to go further and propose that we simply ban the word administrator unless we’re talking about things like the Active Directory or Exchange – in other words server products that really SHOULD be managed by a professional.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You see, someone who have an admin account on a home computer often is an owner of the computer that is often just like the average user, while someone who have an admin account on a business computer usually have an admin job.

  5. Anonymous says:

    BTW, UAC and sudo uses the same idea, at least.

  6. I have an admin account on my business computer, but I don’t have an "admin job".  For some businesses, it makes sense for the users of a computer to be different from the administrators of that computer (for instance the doctors at my HMO have absolutely no need to be administrators of the tablet PCs that they use for patient record management).   But that’s not always the case for many businesses.

  7. Anonymous says:

    That is why I said "usually". Hopefully these admins are not average users.

  8. Anonymous says:

    In the end, I abandoned the idea for Windows in general, since it is also used in businesses with real admins, but for Windows Home Server were not designed for use in such cases. It was designed for homes in which the "admins" are owners that are just like the average user, so why not do so for that?

  9. Anonymous says:

    In other word, maybe we want to ban the word "administrator" for Windows Home Server.

  10. Anonymous says:

    The account name "Administrator" came from the day when Windows NT computers WERE often managed by real admins, BTW.

  11. Anonymous says:

    "the professional administrator hopefully has more training"

    That was exactly my point. I mean, most of the "admins" on home computers are an average user who owns the PC.

  12. Anonymous says:

    BTW, any cases where average users got employed as admins? I bet they were the exception and not the rule. BTW, in the NT vs NetWare war, one of the points were that NT was easier to admin.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I was annoyed by so many people talking how using computers is hard and how it should be easier.

    My response is:

    1. If it is hard don’t do it. Nobody is holding you at a gun-point.

    2. Driving a car is hard too, but you still have to pass the exam and learn how to do it properly or you face the similar (albeit much more dangerous) risk as if you are using the computer without understanding what you are doing.

    3. If you need to use it just like you need to drive a car and you don’t want to do the maintainance work, then PAY someone to do it for you just like you are paying the mechanic to maintain your car.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I posted an update to my blog post.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Update to my blog entry on this issue.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Everyone thinks the Admin is someone else. Nobody wants to do the job for free, and even those that are paid to do it often feel like daycare workers: an awful lot of crap to put up with for the few moments of fun 🙂

    Just be glad you are the second line of defense in the "Why does my computer do that?" war 😉

  17. Anonymous says:

    Suppose you were an idiot.  And suppose you were a member of the Administrators group.  But I repeat myself.

  18. Anonymous says:

    A zero-admin PC:

    http://zonbu.com/

  19. Anonymous says:

    And here I thought this post was going to be about the differences between BUILTINAdministrator and a user account who happens to be a member of the "Administrators" group =)

  20. Anonymous says:

    Finally I figured out that the average user don’t care about computers just because they own or use one. When they use or buy a computer, they buying or using it because are trying to do a task, and once they are finished using their computer, they want to get on with their lives. The average user don’t want to dedicate time to maintain or administrate a computer just because they own one, because if the computer (or anything else for that matter) is useless and just take time to maintain, the user don’t want it. Keep in mind this if you are trying to notify the user. Fortunately, if there is no data on a computer that is not already somewhere else (for example, it is only used as a Internet appliance), the computer don’t have to be backed up.

    BTW, the cost of maintaining and administrating a computer or anything else to someone just because someone owns it is called in business talk as the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

  21. Anonymous says:

    In other words, when the average user buys or sets up or uses a computer, the user engagement level for the computer themselves is quite low. The user just want to use the computer to do a task and they don’t particularly care about computers. In fact, I think that when the average user buys a computer, often someone else recommends which computer to buy because the user don’t want to read technical details.

  22. Anonymous says:

    More on user engagement levels here:

    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/features.html

  23. Anonymous says:

    Anyway, this means that the idiot "admin" don’t want to be an admin at all.