Windows 10 S: A utopian dream for Microsoft tomorrow, a limited reality for students today

At an education-focused event in New York yesterday, Microsoft unveiled Windows 10 S. Unlike Windows RT from the years past (more on that here), Windows 10 S is essentially Windows 10 Pro, but with one big difference — you can only install applications from the Windows Store. Microsoft suggests the S in Windows 10 S means the OS is “streamlined for simplicity, security and superior performance”.

After watching the keynote yesterday, one could also say the S stands for ‘students’, as the company demonstrated how easy large-scale deployment and remote management of the OS can be with tools like Intune, Microsoft’s cloud-based device management system that’s now specifically built for the school IT department.

Microsoft Windows 10 S MicrosoftEDU

It’s clear that Microsoft wants a piece of the pie that Google’s Chrome OS has been enjoying in the education sector in western markets for years. Because Chrome OS is largely a browser-as-an-operating-system, the proposition is attractive to educational institutions for several reasons. One, because the OS is uncluttered, it runs on computers that cost as low as $150 in the US.

Next, there are no recurring software upgrades to pay for, be it applications like an antivirus or the operating system itself. And the software updates automatically without any administrative intervention. Remote deployment and management of these cloud-centric computers is also easy to manage. Finally, select Chrome OS computers last year also got the ability to run Android apps, in a bid to fill the void that existed with Google’s computer operating system for many years.

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Microsoft suggests that by only allowing apps from the Windows Store, it can act as a gatekeeper, deterring malicious .exe files that can ruin a typical Windows computer. The company has also said that these apps will run in controlled sandboxes, enhancing the security, performance and battery life of computers running 10 S. This is important as this OS is going to primarily run on low-end hardware, some of which will sell for as low as $189. Microsoft can curate the experience better for these machines because there can be no random apps running in the background, draining resources unnecessarily.

Essentially, the experience will be similar to other closed operating systems like iOS, that only allow apps available in the App Store of an iPad or iPhone. macOS — Apple’s “proper” computer operating system — also limits the installation of apps from outside the Mac App Store and identified developers by default, with a facility to remove that restriction with a few clicks in System Preferences. Other versions of Windows 10 (like Home, Pro, or Enterprise) too received a similar feature in the recent Creator's update. But to do this on Windows 10 S, it’s going to be a $49 upgrade to Windows 10 Pro (free, if you’re a student, teacher or school admin). Also, once you upgrade from 10 S to Windows 10 Pro, there’s no way to revert to 10 S.

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Microsoft has made a compelling argument to institutions considering deploying Chrome OS to choose Windows 10 S instead, because other than a web browser, they also get access to Microsoft’s popular apps like Office, and an upgrade path to .exe-running Windows should they need to. But the company, weirdly, also put this specialised OS on their Surface Laptop, which has sufficient horsepower to run professional apps that Windows Store currently doesn’t have. Fortunately, you can upgrade to the regular Windows 10 Pro on this MacBook Air/Pro competitor before the end of this year.

So, can students practically use Windows 10 S? If we were to hand over a Windows 10 S computer to a student today, beyond the ones who require only a web browser and office productivity apps, many relevant apps just aren’t there yet.

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Take the case of an engineering student, who uses a variety of applications — from source code editors like Notepad++, Sublime text and Atom Editor, to the Java Software Development Kit, to system design and analysis software like MATLAB. Heck, Microsoft’s own Visual Studio isn’t available on the Windows Store yet. Civil engineering students won’t have access to the full versions of AutoCAD, electrical engineering students won’t be able to use electronic design automation apps like KiCAD, or students pursuing creative fields won’t find video editing tools like Adobe Premiere Pro in the Windows Store today as well.

Now, Microsoft repeats this over and over on the Windows 10 S FAQ page that they’re “working with partners on app compatibility” and asks users to check back later. It even warns that peripherals like printers may suffer from limited functionality in Windows 10 S, presumably since software that accompanies printers isn’t listed on the Windows Store.

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Next, Microsoft Edge will remain the default web browser even if Google or Mozilla were hypothetically to release a version of the Chrome or Firefox respectively on the Windows Store. What’s more baffling — the default search provider, which is Bing, in the Edge browser or Internet Explorer on Windows 10 S can’t be changed. Microsoft suggests that if you need to resolve any of these limitations, you can upgrade to Windows 10 Pro.

In an ideal scenario, if Windows 10 S sees wide adoption at least in classrooms, it should incentivise developers to create apps for the Windows Store, which will benefit not just 10 S users but also users of the Home and Pro versions of Windows 10, which also have access the same app store.

The new OS also has a silver lining for Microsoft’s apps and services like the Edge browser and Bing, which get the exclusivity they desperately need in a world dominated by Chrome and Google. But in what appears to be a classic chicken-and-egg scenario — until Windows Store has all the apps that students use, many will have no choice but upgrade to Windows 10 Pro, effectively losing all the security and performance advantages of Microsoft’s new operating system.

Published Date: May 03, 2017 06:56 pm | Updated Date: Sep 07, 2017 09:16 am