A few thoughts on Windows 10 S…

A few months ago, before Microsoft announced their new Surface Laptop or Windows 10 S, I had several conversations with reporters and friends about what might be coming. In particular, some early reports had hinted that this might be a revision of Windows, something designed for robustness. Some thought it might be more Chromebook-like. Given the experiences of my daughters with Chromebooks, those last two sentences are oxymorons. But I digress. What arrived, Windows 10 S (AKA “Windows 10 Pro in S Mode”) wasn’t a revision or really much of a refinement. It was a nuanced iteration of Windows 10 Pro, with built-in Device Guard policies, and some carefully crafted changes to the underlying OS infrastructure.

Putting the Surface Laptop aside for now (it’s not my laptop, and I’m not its customer), Windows 10 S seems to me to be an OS full of peculiar compromises, with a narrow set of benefits for end users, at least at this time.

I saw this tweet go by on Twitter a bit ago, and several more followed, discussing the shortcomings of Windows 10 S.

In most conversations I’ve had with reporters recently about Windows, I’ve reemphasized my point that what most customers want isn’t “an OS that does <foo>”. They want a toaster.

What do I mean by that? Think about a typical four-slice toaster:

You use it Sunday morning. It toasts.
You use it Monday morning. It toasts.
You use it Wednesday morning. It toasts.

This is what a huge percentage of the populace wants. A toaster. Normals want it. Schools want it. Most IT workers want it. Frankly, I think a lot of IT wants it, because they’re constantly being asked to do more, and given less money to do it with.

The era of tinkering with PCs being fun for normals, and even some technical people, has passed.

So that in mind, what’s wrong with Windows 10 S? Nothing, I guess. In a way, It is at least a more toasterish model for Windows than we’ve seen before. It’s constrained, and attempts to put a perimeter around the Windows desktop OS to reduce the risk posed by the very features of the OS itself.

I encourage you to read Piotr’s thread, above, before reading further.

Windows 10 S is not:

  • A new edition of Windows (or version, for that matter). It’s effectively a specially configured installation of Windows 10 Pro
  • Redesigned for use with touch or tablets, any more than 10 itself is
  • Cloud-backup enabled or cloud recoverable (this one is a shame, IMHO)
  • Free of Win32 and the quirks and challenges that it brings.

Those last two are important. Consumers with iOS devices today are generally used to toaster-like experiences when it comes to backing up and recovering their devices (yes, exceptions exist) to iCloud ideally, or a Mac or PC in certain circumstances. The last one is important because most of the troublesome battery life issues that hit lightweight, low-energy Windows devices can be easily pointed back to the cumbersome baggage of Win32 itself, and Win32 applications engineered for a time when energy was cheap because PCs were plugged in all the time, and everything was about processor power.

So if Windows 10 S isn’t “all new”, what is it?

Technologically, Windows 10 S is designed for the future. Or at least the future Microsoft wants:

  • It offers almost all features of Pro, and can be easily “upgraded” to Pro
  • It natively supports Azure Active Directory domain join and authentication as Pro does, but does not support joining Active Directory at all
  • It supports Windows Store applications only (UWP, Desktop Bridge if crafted correctly, etc), otherwise, no use of Win32 applications not in-box and approved by Microsoft
  • Secure by default, at least in the sense that the previous objective and the implementation of Device Guard + policies built in can deliver.

So it’s an OS that supports the directory, app store, and legacy app distribution models of the future.

A question I’ve been asked several times was, “why no AD join?” – Initially I was just going with the “it’s the directory of the future” theory. But there’s more to it. From the day that AD and Group Policy came into Windows, there was an ongoing struggle in terms of performance and cost. Ask anyone who had a Windows 2000 PC how long they had to wait when they logged on every day. A giant chunk of that was Active Directory. Over time,  Windows added increasing amounts of messaging to tell you what the OS was doing during logon.

If you go back and look at the 10 S reveal, logon performance was a touted feature. I’ve even seen people on Twitter say that’s why they like 10 S better. Why is it better? I’m sure there are some other reasons as well, but by completely obliterating AD integration, I’m certain that a huge performance win was observed.

When I look at 10 S then, particularly the Device Guard-based security, the defenestration of Active Directory, and the use of Pro as an underlying OS rather than a new edition, 10 S feels… kind of like a science experiment that escaped the lab. Frankly, Device Guard always kind of looked that way to me too.

But there’s another angle here too, and it’s kind of a weird one.

I don’t know how much Microsoft is selling Windows 10 S to OEMs for, but price is clearly a factor here. Some have assumed that because it’s based on Pro, that 10 S costs the same, or even costs as much as Home. It is not clear whether that is actually the case.

When announced, Microsoft stated that it would ship on PCs starting at US$189. As I said, price is clearly a factor. Given the fact that a one-time upgrade from 10 S to Pro costs US$49, it seems pretty apparent to me that with 10 S, Microsoft has shifted some costs for Pro that used to be borne by OEMs to consumers. While this US$49 upgrade is basically moot for the remainder of this calendar year, eventually it must be considered, as consumers (and some businesses) will need to pay if they require Pro-only functionality.

So the net effect then is that Windows 10 S devices can be cheaper, at least up-front, than Windows 10 Pro devices (and maybe Home). Users who need Pro can “upgrade” to it.

Here’s where I think this gets really interesting. Before too long, we can expect to see ARM-based devices running Windows 10. I think that these devices could likely come with 10 S on them, resulting in lower purchase prices, as well as a reduced risk vector if users don’t actually need to run their own library of Win32 applications. In a way then, “Windows 10 S on ARM” offers most of the actual value that Windows RT ever delivered, but would offer far more, by supporting Desktop Bridge applications, and a complete upgrade to Pro with support for x86 Win32 applications.

Consumers could pay for the upgrade to Pro if they need to run full Win32, or need to upgrade the device to Enterprise for work. In this scenario, I imagine that Chrome will likely be the reason why a number of 10 S users pay for an upgrade.

Just as with the vaguely unannounced “Windows 10 Pro for Workstations”, there’s always a reason why these changes occur, and a strategic objective that Microsoft has planned. For me, I think that 10S, especially with a pilot launch on Microsoft’s own Surface Laptop hardware, is pretty clearly a sign of a few directions there the company wants to go.


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