Many people branded Microsoft’s Windows 10 S and Surface Laptop event earlier today as the start of the company’s clash with Google in education. I don’t see it entirely that way. I view it as both a culmination and pitstop of the Redmond-quartered company’s long ongoing education efforts. If anything, Google’s threat with its Chrome OS and Chromebooks has provided Microsoft the impetus to push more aggressively into education.
You see, success in education (be it commercial or mindshare) isn’t as simple as releasing a new operating system and/or a product or two. It's a long play that requires a lot of planning and significant investments. Windows 10 S the OS may be getting all the headlines today, but let’s not forget that in the past year Microsoft has also released Microsoft Classroom, a digital platform for simplifying the grading of assignments and student communication, and School Data Sync, an online classroom automation solution; announced Intune for Education preview, a cloud-based mobile device and application management service, and Windows 10 PCs from OEMs that start at just US$189; as well as made updates to Minecraft: Education Edition.
The news of individual Office 2016 apps coming to the Windows Store, the general availability of Intune for Education, and the Code Builder feature in Minecraft: Education Edition that were sandwiched between the two big software and hardware announcements today? Those are improvements to and logical progression of existing tools.
Microsoft’s Windows and Devices Group chief Terry Myerson called Windows 10 S a streamlined version of Windows 10, with a specific focus on performance and security. That’s mainly due to the fact that it can’t run Win32 apps not verified by Microsoft. If you want to run anything that’s not already pre-installed on the device, you’ve to fire up Windows Store to find it.
Now, we all know how the reliance on the Store had caused Windows RT its life. Is Windows 10 S Windows RT round two? Well, yes and no. For one, Windows 10 S isn’t exclusive to ARM-based devices; it works on x86 laptops too.
In terms of lineage, it’s also closer to Windows 10 Pro than the short-lived RT or even Windows 10 Home. It supports Intune, Azure Active Directory Join, Enterprise State Roaming via Azure AD, full BitLocker encryption, Windows Update and Windows Store for Business, and plays nice with mobile device management policies. If this isn’t enough, you can easily unlock Windows 10 Pro on a Windows 10 S device. At the moment, Microsoft is making this upgrade free until the end of 2017; after which, it’ll cost US$49. You won’t find this flexibility on Chrome OS. (Update: Here's a Windows 10 S FAQ from Microsoft.)
Regarding the app problem, a few things have changed since the Windows RT days. Key amongst them is Microsoft’s Desktop Bridge (codenamed ‘Centennial’), a toolkit that helps developers bring their desktops apps to the company’s Universal Windows Platform and Windows Store. Alas, support for it remains weak at the moment, so I’m under no illusion that the availability of Windows 10 S will automagically cause, say, Apple and Google to have a change of heart and release iTunes and Chrome in the Windows Store. (Update: iTunes is coming to the Windows Store.) Microsoft is holding its annual Build developer conference next week, hopefully we’ll hear more initiatives and incentives that will convince more developers to move in the same direction.
I think it should be clear by now that Windows 10 S isn’t a barebones, low-end OS. Yes, the baseline performance that’s targeted for entry-level hardware and the low-cost “education PCs” that OEMs are making make a lot of sense in this education, anti-Chromebook narrative, but that’s not the only narrative.
To some extent, I see Windows 10 S as Microsoft’s version of iOS, offering a new way of getting work done but powerful and scalable at the same time. Putting it on the Surface Laptop, a decidedly premium laptop, is a demonstration of that. Primary schools won’t buy this laptop in droves, but tertiary students who often prefer to have their own personal laptop and cloud-connected working professionals may just lap it up. Windows 10 S for business isn't a strong narrative now, because of, you know, the whole Windows Store situation. But it has the potential to be.
I won’t go into the failings of the Surface Book and speculate how those might have affected the Surface Laptop's design, but what I will say is that like all the other Surface-branded devices, the Surface Laptop offers PC OEMs yet another blueprint for making desirable PCs. The Surface Laptop alone won’t stop the decline of PC sales, but the chance is certainly higher when more devices of this quality are in the market. Microsoft needs to convince its hardware partners why Windows 10 S is worth their time too, and the Surface Laptop provides one answer.
I write. I also fix things.