Earlier today, Microsoft held an event to reintroduce itself to teachers and students as a company providing innovative and compelling education products. The event promised to be narrowly focused on a large-scale market where price and ease of use trumped more frivolous considerations like design elegance, but Microsoft couldn’t help itself and also introduced the gorgeous new Surface Laptop. The connecting link between Microsoft’s suite of educational tools and the premium Surface Laptop? Windows 10 S, the operating system at the heart of both.
The dual role played by Windows 10 S at today’s event might pose problems for Microsoft down the line as prospective users struggle to figure out what exactly the S stands for.
For the first half of Microsoft’s presentation, the message was crisp, clear, and concise. Windows 10 S is Windows 10 with its wings slightly clipped: it can only run apps from the Windows Store, disabling compatibility with the enormous breadth of Windows programs out there, which in the educational context translates to better security, consistent performance, focus for students, and improved battery life. It’s cheaper and less versatile than Windows 10 Pro, which is exactly what schools are looking for (and the thing that’s had them gravitating toward Google’s Chrome OS in recent times).
If the 10 S story had been kept focused solely on education, shop assistants would have had no problem understanding how to pitch this software and how to prepare buyers for its limitations. But Microsoft’s ambitions for Windows 10 S are clearly grander than that, as evidenced by the company’s Windows chief Terry Myerson describing 10 S as "the soul of Windows." And so we now have the Surface Laptop, a device that starts at $999 with Windows 10 S on board, which would make for a great college computer, but whose appeal is frankly universal and all-encompassing.
Windows 10 S is supposed to serve both premium and utilitarian purposes
Immediately upon its introduction, Windows 10 S spans a price range from $189 to $2,199 (for the top Surface Laptop spec). So is this a straightforward and affordable solution for mass educational deployment? Or is it a super streamlined operating system for powering extremely desirable and long-lasting laptops? Yes. Microsoft’s answer to both of those things is yes. It’s not impossible to achieve both goals with the same software, of course, but it is difficult to position the OS in people’s minds.
Muddying matters a little more, Microsoft is literally positioning Windows 10 S in between the Home and Pro versions of Windows, both of which can run apps from outside the Store, which to many people would make them the superior choice. So the question of the precise identity of Windows 10 S persists; it’s intended to serve both premium and utilitarian purposes, but happens to have a major limitation that seems to mostly make sense in the professional sphere to which it was originally pitched.
The overall strategy makes sense, but nobody really knows what the S stands for
The equivocation about who or what Windows 10 S is for is especially salient in the wake of the failed Windows RT experiment. RT was Microsoft’s streamlined version of Windows designed specifically for ARM processors, which also omitted compatibility with the vast ecosystem of existing Windows apps. It also led to confusion among consumers, and it ultimately flopped spectacularly due to a number of factors, chief among them being the nasty surprise of buying a machine with a Windows sticker on it that couldn’t run the majority of Windows programs people had been habituated to using (like, say, Google’s Chrome browser).
The Windows on ARM effort is going to be rekindled by the end of this year, and Windows 10 S is the likeliest candidate to be the OS of choice for those new computers, in which case the significance of the S label will once again be complicated. Come the holidays, buying a Windows 10 S PC could mean getting either an Intel or an ARM machine, it could mean cheap and cheerful or it could be a premium portable.
To be clear, I think the path Microsoft is pursuing is strategically correct. The Windows Store has been mostly moribund and Microsoft needs a way to reanimate developer interest in it. By tying the Store to a beautiful piece of premium hardware like the Surface Laptop, Microsoft is lending its Store some much-needed credibility and prestige, and by also hooking in teachers and students via its educational rollout, it’s offering developers the promise of massive scale. The S in Windows 10 S probably stands for "Store," since it’s the key to attracting people to Microsoft’s vision of the future of Windows computing and apps. If everyone buys in, the label won’t matter, but as of today, Windows 10 S is a good idea in need of better communication.