Microsoft takes aim at Chrome OS with a new, and very necessary, education push

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Microsoft takes aim at Chrome OS with a new, and very necessary, education push

Microsoft’s New York City event to launch Windows 10 S and the Surface Laptop appears to have confused many people. The larger theme of the event was “education,” but this is a broad topic. Judging by many of the reactions, Microsoft didn’t do a good job of distinguishing the Surface Laptop from its offerings and ambitions for K-12 education. When introduced, the Laptop was still given an education spin, but in a very different context: college students, rather than middle and high schoolers.

Both of these are important, but they’re important in different ways, and the challenges Microsoft faces are very different. While Surface Laptop is the most eye-catching of the company’s announcements, it is, like the other Surface hardware, intended as more of a high-end halo product rather than a mass-market device. Surface Laptop was arguably the least important part of what Microsoft presented. Windows 10 S, and the range of education-oriented systems starting at $189, are a far bigger deal.

Middle- and high-school education has usage models that are not common in most other spheres. For example, while Windows has long supported individual user accounts, the use of highly shared systems—in which each student grabs a laptop from a cart at the start of a lesson (or sits down at a lab PC) and logs in, having never used that particular machine before—is much less common in home or corporate scenarios. Corporate deployments of hundreds of computers would almost always have some kind of on-site administrative staff along with centralized management using Active Directory and Group Policies. School environments are often far more ad hoc, without that same central management and much greater use of hands-on maintenance.

This means that school environments are often relatively poorly served by the traditional IT department-oriented management tools, diluting strengths that Windows might otherwise have.

The school market is also not one that’s entrenched in the same way as the corporate desktop. Apple has, for many years, had a strong presence in US education, though this success wasn’t felt in the rest of the world. The newest threat in the education landscape, however, is seeing global reach: Chrome OS.

Finding its niche

Google’s locked-down operating system wasn’t particularly designed for education. It was built as a browser-based operating system for using Google’s ecosystem of cloud services. But the properties Google gave Chrome OS made it a good fit for education. The operating system uses the Linux kernel and offers a desktop environment substantially built around the Chrome browser. Google built it in a deliberately restrictive, secure way; for example, Chrome OS automatically upgraded, it didn’t allow locally installed applications, and it used digital signatures to ensure the operating system wasn’t tampered with. While some of these restrictions have been somewhat lifted—the operating system now has full support for running locally installed Android applications, though they remain sandboxed and restricted—it remains a highly constrained environment.

With cloud-based applications and a locked-down operating system, there’s just not a whole lot that people can do to break Chrome OS. This makes the OS substantially immune to both vandalistic students and hackers alike.

Machines running Chrome OS are also very cheap. While Google has dabbled with high-end, highly designed, expensive machines, Chromebooks—with both x86 and ARM processors—have been available for just a couple of hundred bucks. Chromebooks have largely resurrected the Netbook concept and its pricing.

Microsoft reckons that schools will use Teams to let their students chat with experts via Skype.

Add to this G Suite (formerly Google Apps) for Education—Google makes its suite of cloud services free for schools—and cloud-based administrative tools, and Chrome OS is an attractive option for schools that are cash-strapped and short on skilled IT staff. Moreover, Chrome OS is showing some international reach, succeeding not just in US classrooms, but those of Sweden and beyond.

This wider adoption makes Chrome OS threatening to Microsoft in a way that Macs in education weren’t. The prospect that Microsoft faces is that a generation of school kids will go through their education without using the twin mainstays of Windows and Office. The problem for Microsoft won’t be that these kids are hostile to the company’s software; rather, they’ll be ignorant of it, having never had that exposure. When those kids enter the workforce, they’ll be familiar with Google’s apps and Chrome, of course. They just won’t have any particular interest in Windows or Office, and they are much less likely to expect to use them or, for that matter, want to use them.

Microsoft has arguably seen this same issue on a smaller scale already. The popularity of Macs in (especially) US universities means that many graduates that might once have been expected to have Windows expertise don’t. Their experience is macOS, the bash command-line, and Unix-like systems. We’ve heard from people within the company that this caused issues when hiring new graduates: they weren’t familiar with the Windows way of developing, and they had to learn a new set of skills. Much-improved PC hardware, along with the Windows Subsystem for Linux, has given Redmond some ability to push back in this particular field.

Windows 10 S and Microsoft’s new education features are intended as the wider answer. On the hardware front, the price is right. Windows 10 S systems for schools will start at $189. Bump up to $300 and you can add touch and pen support, spill-resistant keyboards, and shock-absorbing designs. We’d expect that, for the most part, any x86 Chromebook will also have a comparable Windows 10 S version, especially among education-oriented systems.

Leveling the playing field

The promise of Windows 10 S on client machines is much the same as that of Chrome OS. Windows 10 S can run a browser (Edge, this time, rather than Chrome), and it can run apps from a store (the Windows Store, of course, rather than the Google Play Store). 10 S automatically updates, it uses cryptographic certificates to protect against tampering, and, as long as Microsoft has implemented the Store-based restriction effectively, it should offer comparable robustness and resilience against both hackers and students alike.

Microsoft is also recognizing the shortcomings of existing IT-oriented administration facilities. The company has built a deployment tool, “Set Up School PCs,” for configuring Windows 10 systems. This doesn’t depend on corporate capabilities such as Intel vPro management, PXE remote booting, or Active Directory and Group Policy, because they’re simply not features of these environments. Instead, Set Up School PCs uses USB keys: the deployment tool builds a configuration—setting up things like networking, pre-installed apps, and even system wallpaper—and writes it to a USB drive.

That USB drive is inserted into client machines for about 30 seconds each, and it sets them up. With a handful of USB sticks, hundreds of machines can be configured in a few hours. Hands-on administration is a necessary reality in this field; Microsoft’s goal is to make it better and simpler.

Once systems are up and running, administration moves over to the cloud. The Intune device-management service sports additional education-oriented features, such as offering “test” accounts that lock down systems when they’re being used to run examinations, and built-in support for school concepts such as teachers, students, and different grades, so that policies can be applied to the organizational units that make most sense in education settings. Both the remote deployment tools and Intune for Education have been in beta since the start of the year, and both now head into general availability.

OneNote has education features.

With similar pricing and operating-system robustness, Microsoft has arguably equalized its position on the client. And in other areas the company might well have an advantage. Just as Google makes G Suite for Education free, Microsoft similarly makes the cloud-based Office 365 for Education, with access to the various Office Web apps, free. Some of these apps don’t (yet) have any Google counterpart; Office 365 for Education includes Microsoft Teams, the company’s Slack-like chat and collaboration service. This is being pushed as an ideal tool for collaborative and group projects. OneNote, similarly, has education-oriented features such as Class Notebooks, which can sync with digital whiteboards. Digital whiteboards give kids a single place to both take their own lesson notes and review those presented by their teacher.

And Windows 10 S can, of course, run the Office desktop applications. The Office desktop apps will soon be included in the Windows Store, and while education access to the desktop apps isn’t free, the option of using these considerably more powerful applications is not something that exists on Chromebooks.

Chrome OS in education isn’t going to go away, and its features are still going to appeal to educators. But with Windows 10 S, Intune for Education, Office 365 for Education, and the Chromebook-priced Windows machines, Microsoft has offerings to match every element of Google’s education platform. Schools may still pick Google’s platform, but it now has stiff competition it didn’t before.

Listing image by Peter Bright

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