What is Windows 10 S and how does it different from previous software?
Update 06.09.2017: In a blog post announcing new Surface laptop colours, Microsoft has said it is giving people longer to make the switch from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro.
This means people can upgrade for free until March 31, 2018, as Microsoft hopes it will “provide increased flexibility for those people searching for the perfect back-to-school or holiday gift.”
So what is Windows 10 S? In short, it’s Windows 10 without the ability to install whatever you like.
Windows 10 S is built on the same codebase as its parent OS – there’s no reinvention of the wheel going on here. Instead, Microsoft is having a second bash at selling the world a locked-down operating system that can only install apps from its Store.
Microsoft’s first attempt at this concept ended in ignoble failure. Windows RT was the ARM-based version of Windows 8 that would only run Store apps and reworked versions of Microsoft’s own Office apps.
Despite a (Microsoft-funded?) burst of enthusiasm at launch, few manufacturers released machines based on Windows RT and those that did soon regretted doing so. Sales were dismal and many customers who did pick up an RT machine returned it to the retailer, confused as to why a Windows laptop wouldn’t install Google Chrome, Firefox or many of their favourite applications. The return rates were described as “painful” by a well-known PC retailer.
By the end, Microsoft was the sole horse left in the race, its own Surface RT tablet being the only device still running the cut-down version of Windows. It was quietly shelved with the launch of Windows 10 and nary mentioned again by Microsoft.
So what’s changed this time around? For one thing, people have warmed to the idea of running locked-down laptops, particularly in schools. Chrome OS accounted for 58% of new shipments into US schools in 2016, according to data released earlier this year by Futuresource Consulting. Windows’ US market share dipped to an all-time low of 22%, although it still commands 65% of the education market worldwide.
As Mike Fisher, associate director of education at Futuresource, noted earlier this year, “Microsoft continues to face challenges to win back end user mindshare”.
“Chromebook users and administrators continually refer to the simplicity and ease of use of the platform,” Fisher said, before practically begging Microsoft to get into the game. “A potential new OS offering ‘Cloud OS’ – a stripped back, simplified OS, designed specifically for cloud with education in mind – would ‘square the dots’ on other recent moves Microsoft has made in education.” Microsoft clearly heard the clarion call.
But, as Fisher noted in his remarks, the success of the Chromebook isn’t due solely to an app lockdown that makes them easier to manage than conventional Windows PCs – it’s also down to the price of the devices and the administrator tools. Our hardware guide on p36 provides a flavour of the prices being charged for the first Windows 10 S devices, and Microsoft claims to have the management tools sorted, too.
Alongside Windows 10 S, Microsoft unveiled Intune for Education, a version of its cloud-based application and device management suite for schools. Microsoft claims the dashboard has been designed for schools who “want to put devices in classrooms and not touch them again for the rest of the school year”, with the dashboard simplified to make it accessible for “teachers playing the role of IT [admin] in the classroom”. It will be priced at $30 per device managed, so a darned-sight cheaper than hiring an IT support technician.
Like Google, Microsoft doesn’t only have its eyes on the education market. According to figures from analyst IDC, Chromebooks outsold Macs in the US for the first time last year. And although Google doesn’t spell out Chromebook unit sales, there’s even a suggestion they’ve been responsible for halting the long decline of PCs. IDC reported a slight 0.6% increase in PC sales earlier this year, its first recorded growth in five years. Rival research firm Gartner, on the other hand, recorded a continued 2.4% decline. What could explain the discrepancy between the two firms’ figures? IDC includes Chromebooks in its PC count, Gartner doesn’t.
Even if hard data is difficult to come by, there’s little doubt that Chromebooks have been mopping up some of the market that was reserved for low-cost Windows laptops. Which makes it all the more bewildering why Microsoft has chosen to showcase Windows 10 S on its high-end Surface laptop – a 13.5in svelte ultraportable with a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD, with the eyebrow-propelling price of £979 inc VAT. The top-of-the-range Core i7/16GB of RAM/512GB SSD model costs in excess of two grand. Does Microsoft really get this market?
There are other signs that Microsoft doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions. Most notably, it’s giving Windows 10 S users a ripcord – if they find the OS too restrictive and want to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro, they can do so at any time for $49. However, as Andreessen Horowitz analyst Benedict Evans noted on Twitter: “Am I missing something or is ‘Windows 10 S’ basically Windows but with a fee to change this setting?” he wrote, alongside a screenshot of a setting from OS X that allows you to restrict app installs to the App Store. It gets worse: that same setting is already in Windows 10.
So is there really nothing else to Windows 10 S than a tickbox that prevents downloads of any executables you might stumble across online? In all honesty, there’s not a whole lot more. Microsoft has reduced the time it takes for a machine to be usable if someone logs in for the first time: it should now only take 15 seconds, with obvious benefits for those using a shared machine in the classroom. It also demonstrated how Windows 10 S machines can be imaged from a USB drive in around 30 seconds, which is far quicker than your average Windows install.
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