At first sight Microsoft’s Surface Laptop and Windows 10S launch is all about education. That was the company’s emphasis at the product roll-out in New York.
Yet there is more at stake here than putting computers in school bags.
The announcement outlines a strategy for the next stage of personal computing. If Microsoft pulls this off, it will once again dominate the sector.
On the Surface
Surface Laptop is Microsoft’s most ambitious touch screen hardware product to date.
Previous Microsoft devices; Surface Pro tablets, Surface Book, Surface Hub and Surface Studio, are all niche products. They cater for minority tastes.
The Surface Laptop is mainstream. It competes head on with hardware from brands like HP, Lenovo and Asus. The Surface Laptop is a direct challenge to Apple’s MacBook range.
It doesn’t directly address Google’s Chromebook, but Microsoft developed the Surface Laptop with that product in mind.
Chromebook is a basic, low-cost, easy-to-manage laptop. It has sold well. It is one of the few PC success stories of recent years. Chromebook sales have climbed while sales of most other computer formats have been in free fall.
It is more sucessful than Google’s rivals expected. Above all else the Chromebook is strong in education. Yet that’s only part of the story. IDC’s latest market survey says Chromebook are now selling well to commercial customers.
We can assume Microsoft understands the Chromebook threatens its PC business.
Chromebooks run Google’s Chrome OS. In effect, the operating system is the Chrome browser.
Chrome OS is light on features. You can’t do everything with Chrome OS. You don’t have as much low-level control. But that’s a good thing for many customers.
Lots of users don’t need all the personal computer trimmings. They just want to get a limited set of tasks done in an unfussy way. This applies in spades to young school students.
More to the point, school students and their families are not willing or able to pay for a more powerful computer with a full operating system.
You can buy a Chromebook in New Zealand for less than NZ$400. Brands like HP, Asus, Acer and Lenovo all have versions. This is less than half the price of a mainstream laptop. It is about one-quarter the price of the cheapest Apple Mac.
In many schools Chromebooks have displaced Windows laptops.
That bothers Microsoft. Aside from the impact on today’s market share and revenue, there is a risk people will get a taste for Chromebooks.
Youngsters growing up with school Chromebooks may stick with them later in life. Or if not Chromebook, something else that doesn’t involve Microsoft Windows. The no Windows habit could rub off on their families, friends and workplaces.
Microsoft wants to counter that threat.
The Surface Laptop looks great but it is not going to do that. For a start it is too expensive. It sells in the US for $1000. That’s four or five times the price of a Chromebook.
It is a premium 13-inch laptop, more a competitor to models like the MacBook, HP Spectre and Dell XPS 13. It’s lighter and thinner than a MacBook Air. It costs less and is more powerful.
That comparison is a whole other story that needs closer inspection. Maybe another post. We’re going to look at something more fundamental here.
While Surface Laptop is inexpensive compared to, say, a MacBook Pro or Surface Book, it’s not going to shake up the education market.
That job goes to Windows 10S.
Where Windows 10S fits
There are, of course, plenty of low-cost Windows laptops to choose from. Asus, Lenovo and Acer all have PCs in New Zealand that sell for under NZ$400. If you can afford a little more, there are plenty of better models for less than NZ$500.
Low-cost Windows laptops tend to be clunky and inelegant. They are not powerful by 2017 standards. But, like Chromebooks, they get the job done.
At least they would get the job done but for one problem. To claw back the dollars makers don’t earn from hardware sales, they load them with trial software. This often makes more money for the computer maker than they get from the hardware sale.
Software makers pay to have their apps included as standard on PCs. They may call their products trial ware or use some other coy name. We know them as crapware.
The name is well deserved. These programs are ugly. They make for an awful user experience. They bombard people with messages. At times they can frighten less experienced or tech-savvy users. Some include marketing messages that border on blackmail.
Crapware often slows computers down. It can introduce security risks. More than one of these programs has included a serious malware payload in the past.
Other crapware programs report key information back to their owners behind the computer user’s back.
Even the best crapware is annoying. It can pop up with a distracting, unwelcome message at an inappropriate moment.
In effect, you can get a great deal on a low-end PC in return for accepting a steaming pile of crapware. What a time to be alive.
By locking down the computer, Microsoft says Windows 10S will improve security and performance. It keeps things simple. Windows 10S makes it easy for administrators to manage fleets of computers.
And it locks out crapware.
If you choose to stick with Windows 10S, and that’s optional, then you’ll only be able to install apps from the official Microsoft app store.
Now that may not be what you want from a computer. But there are people who like the sound of this.
Remember Windows RT?
We’ve been here before. Windows RT was the Microsoft operating system on the first Surface Tablets. It had the same lock-down approach and similar restrictions. It was a commercial flop.
RT cost Microsoft hundreds of millions of dollars.
In practice, Windows RT was not an awful OS. After all Apple’s iOS is locked down in a similar way and that’s been a winner.
The issue is that Microsoft Windows users want different things from their devices to Apple users. One of them is the ability to run tons of obscure, esoteric and, in some cases, poorly written niche apps.
Creating a version of Windows that can’t run most Windows apps was a mistake.
Unlike Apple, Microsoft failed to make sure the app store was packed with all the must have apps. Using the RT store was like walking into a shop with dusty, empty shelves and few recognisable products or brands.
This time is different…?
You may ask yourself what’s different this time. The simple answer is that Microsoft will force Windows 10S on the market.
Most or at least many future Windows PCs will come with Windows 10S installed at the outset. Customers can upgrade, if upgrade is the right word here, to a full unlocked version of Windows 10 by paying US$50.
Inertia and a reluctance to spend any money means many customers will never upgrade.
Big guns buy-in
Another difference this time is that Windows hardware makers are joining the lockdown party.
Some of the biggest names will have Windows 10S laptops on sale within weeks. It’s going to be hard for PC buyers to ignore these machines. The list of companies already signed up is a who’s who of the hardware business.
With Windows 10S users will only be able to get apps from Microsoft’s App Store. That means the company gets to clip the ticket with every purchase.
Independent developers may whinge, but the same approach has worked well for Apple.
When it arrives a lot of popular Windows apps will not be available for Windows 10S. Among the stand-outs are the Chrome browser and iTunes. The pair may not be your favourite apps, but they are popular.
What happens when a user, who has paid a bargain basement price for their PC, learns they need to shell out another $50 to run Chrome or iTunes?
The deal is worse than that. When you switch to the full version of Windows, you lose a lot of the security benefits. The responsibility of managing your system returns. Again that may not worry you, but it will be a problem for some others.
If you read the above section and thought Windows 10S will cause headaches for Microsoft’s biggest competitors, you’d be right.
It’s no accident Chrome and iTunes were mentioned above. Google and Apple need to put their games theory strategists onto this one. Do they invest in creating Microsoft app store versions of their software?
If they don’t they run the risk of being cast adrift from large numbers of their customers. Although it’s possible the disconnected customers might be the kind that don’t use their software anyway.
If Google and Apple do build app store versions, they help Microsoft create a formidable ecosystem that may bash them again later.
Windows 10S is likely to be a hit with schools and organizations that want to impose order on PCs.
Otherwise there’s always a chance Microsoft’s customers may walk away from Windows 10S.
People don’t have many other places to go. Chrome OS is even more locked down. Apple is less so, but the nuances of its approach aren’t always understood.
Microsoft still accounts for the vast majority of PC operating systems. So it looks like it will succeed this time. But there’s always a possibility Windows 10S will be an RT rerun with even higher stakes.