Windows 10 S: Too smart for schools alone

Windows 10 S can and should be the break from legacy Windows PCs that enterprise IT has long needed

Windows 10 S: Too smart for schools alone

When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella helped introduced Windows 10 S last week, he related a tear-inducing story of how much technology could help poor kids learn in the modern world, citing his own youth in India. That’s effective for getting media attention, but not so much for succeeding in the market.

After struggling for nearly a decade, Google’s Chrome OS recently has begun picking up traction in schools, so of course that’s the new battlefront for technology pundits. The theory is that whoever wins the school wins the next generation. That’s provably false: Apple “owned” the education market in the 1980s but never owned the mass market, and IBM “owned” the education market in the 1990s but only very briefly owned the mass market.

Education is not a market—it's a charity case. Google’s Chromebooks are very cheap and very limited (so they’re easier to manage by teachers and students in the typical IT-less school). That’s great for schools, which are often underfunded and deprived of needed resources. I applaud any company that helps out such schools.

But Windows 10 S is no Chrome OS. Although simpler than regular Windows 10, it’s still sophisticated, somewhere between the complexity of an iPad and a Mac. I’ve heard plenty of school administrators say that iPads are too involved to manage in school settings, so I don’t see how Windows 10 S will really get traction beyond resource-rich schools or those that Microsoft itself adopts for technology management to serve as marketing showcases.

I don’t believe Windows 10 S is about schools; that’s good marketing to get initial attention. I believe Windows 10 S is about simplifying Windows, a second run at what Windows RT tried (and spectacularly failed) to do in 2012 based on Apple’s initially promising iPad model. (Remember when all computers would be iPads? Apple now sells half the number of iPad tablets it did three years ago, and Android tablets never got any traction.)

Such simplification would be great for enterprise IT, letting them simplify their deployment management and security efforts. After all, many users run only Office, a web browser, and Outlook—who needs a full PC for that?

Like Windows RT, Windows 10 S is meant to jettison all the Windows legacy that has built up since 1992’s Windows 3.1. Windows RT used an ARM chip that made all existing apps incompatible, a too-drastic cutoff. Windows 10 S instead restricts apps to Universal Windows (.appx) versions purchased from the Windows Store, similar to how iOS allows only App Store apps to be installed.

But a Windows 10 S PC can be upgraded to the full Windows 10 OS (for a fee, of course) should that Store-only app restriction prove unworkable and organizations are forced to use old-style Win32s (.msi and .exe) apps. Neither Windows RT nor iOS provide that option.

Still, the Windows Store needs a helluva lot more apps to be viable even for a simpler enterprise use case. It doesn’t have the real Microsoft Office yet, though Microsoft claims it’s working on it. (Considering that Microsoft already offers real Office for MacOS, iOS, and Android, this should have been done a long time ago.)

Microsoft’s Desktop Bridge technology should help port legacy apps to the .appx format, for both internal and third-party apps. Maybe Microsoft will use it for Office!

Even if the app store issue is resolved for basic apps, the Windows 10 S strategy could be undercut by another goal Microsoft clearly has: to lock you into an all-Microsoft environment, similar to what is effectively the case (via G Suite) in Chrome OS. Windows 10 S will run Office 365’s apps, from OneDrive to the planned .appx version of Office 2016, and it will make the still-maturing Edge the default browser (like Chrome OS does Chrome and MacOS and iOS do Safari). Edge may in fact be the only browser in Windows 10 S, because there is no .appx version of Chrome or Firefox to use instead.

Will there be other suites to compete with Office? Maybe not—but so what? Google’s G Suite has no native desktop versions, so it could run in Edge. (But then why not simply use a Chromebook?) Apple has never ported its iWork suite to Windows, though it too can work in a Windows browser.

If Office (including Visio and Access) comes to Windows 10 S, the big app gap will be filled, leaving Microsoft to convince a small number of developers like Adobe, Apple’s FileMaker unit, CA, IBM’s Cognos unit, Infor, Intuit, Oracle, and SAP to port their most-used native legacy Windows apps to the Windows Store. The truth is many corporate apps today are web-based front ends to cloud services, from Salesforce to Workday. That’s a direction to which traditional vendors like IBM, Oracle, and SAP are also moving. If you compare the web version of Office to the native version, you quickly see there’s no comparison, but it’s a small number of popular business apps that truly need a native client (Adobe Creative Suite comes to mind, as does any analytics tool); web front ends work well for many others.

However, Microsoft’s Office productivity suite is quite good, and its collaboration tools are uneven but serviceable, so being locked into them will likely not inhibit enterprise adoption. Enterprises may also accept the de facto Edge lock-in, as they once did the de facto Internet Explorer lock-in that preceded it. Enterprises often embrace lock-in as “a single throat to choke” for purchasing and support, and the overall benefit of standardization—the complaints you routinely hear from CIOs notwithstanding.

For deployment and management, Windows 10 S relies on the mobile-based management model introduced in Windows 10 Anniversary Edition. That may put off IT organizations at first because so many are entrenched in Microsoft’s System Center Configuration Manager and similar legacy tools for their many generations of Windows PCs. But Microsoft is evolving SCCM to support both the legacy model and the new model; it had to do that so enterprises could continue to support Windows 7 PCs in the long transition most will take to Windows 10.

Over time, regular Windows 10 PCs and any Window 10 S ones will be managed through the modern tools, which also manage iOS and Android devices. Windows 10 S fits in the future of management, and organizations that need to support both the past and the future can do what they’re already doing: Use tools like SCCM for their standard PCs and a modern management tool from Microsoft, MobileIron, JAMF, IBM, Soti, VMware, and many others to manage both their mobile devices and their Windows 10 S PCs (and even Windows 10 PCs if desired).

Microsoft was smart not to lock Windows 10 S to its own Intune and Enterprise Mobility Suite (EMS) management tools; that might have been one lock-in too many for IT.

Windows 10 S promises IT a much simpler, standardized set of PCs to support, secure, and manage—and a cleaner technology platform to which Microsoft, hardware makers, and software developers alike can move. I’d be shocked if that’s not Microsoft’s real goal with Windows 10 S.

The legacy Windows platform needs to die, and because previous alternatives failed doesn’t mean they all must. Windows 10 S is so far the likeliest Windows replacement to succeed.

If the “S” in Windows 10 S means “schools,” it’s doomed. If the “S” in Windows 10 S means “straitjacket,” it’s doomed too. But early indications are that the “S” in Windows 10 S really does stand for “Simplified,” which makes all the difference.

Let Chrome OS “own” the schools. When kids graduate, they’ll leave it behind and get real computers, like they leave behind their Lunchables and Gymborees. Microsoft’s goal should be to make better Windows PCs that postschool computer, not an iPad or Mac.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.