Is Windows 10 S for you? The good, the bad, and the target users

The "S" could stand for Student. Or Special. Or Stupid. David Gewirtz suggests Secure, Safe and Sandboxed.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Surface Laptop is Microsoft's $999 flagship for Windows 10 S Sarah Tew/CNET

Sarah Tew/CNET

I'll be honest with you. When I first read Ed Bott's account of the introduction of Windows 10 S, my reaction was, well, horror. After all this time spent watching Microsoft get its mojo back, my first impression was that the ghost of Steve Ballmer was back and Windows RT had risen from the dead.

But in the intervening week and a half, I've been looking more deeply into Windows 10 S, and getting a much better understanding of where S stands in the overall Windows ecosystem.

Windows 10 S vs. Windows RT

When Windows RT came out, I brutalized Microsoft over what I considered an incredibly misleading and dangerous product. I even wrote a day-in-the-life piece about how a misled customer bought a Surface RT machine thinking it would run Windows apps, and eventually had to return it.

But Windows 10 S is different. The fundamental difference: The same hardware can run Windows 10 and Windows 10 S. That wasn't the case with RT. RT ran on ARM chips, and if you had a Surface RT, there was nothing you could possibly do to get it to run real software.

Also: Chromebook killer or the second coming of Windows RT? | Google Chrome won't be allowed on Windows 10 S | TechRepublic: Windows 10 S has the potential to create lifelong Microsoft customers

By contrast, if you buy an admittedly pricey $999 Surface Laptop running S, you can upgrade for free (at least through the end of the year) to Windows 10 Pro. The same machine can run both Windows variants. Acer and HP are introducing S machines for as little as $189, which puts them squarely in Chromebook price territory, and they're able to run more than just browser apps.

Let's summarize what makes Windows 10 S, um, special: Windows 10 S will only run applications you can download from the Windows Store. That's it. You can't install anything else. Today, that means no professional-level Photoshop or Creative Cloud.

But some Windows apps will run

But some traditional Win32 applications have already been packaged up for the Windows Store. Evernote runs, along with an Evernote extension for Edge. Slack runs. Photoshop Elements (the consumer version of Photoshop) is available in the Windows Store. So is Autodesk Sketch. These are real Windows applications, which puts Windows 10 S in a much different category than RT.

Other applications, most notably the Office 2016 desktop apps and Spotify, are coming very soon to the Windows Store. There's a customizing/porting process involved called Desktop Bridge. Not all older Win32 applications will be ported, either because developers don't want to port them, or because the code base is too crufty. But you can expect many of the big players will be migrated, and that means real Windows applications - just in a more controlled environment.

On the other hand, S users can run the Edge browser and only the Edge browser. Chrome will never, ever be allowed to run on S. For many of us, this alone would be a deal-breaker. But I'll come back to that.

The key to Windows 10 S is that unless the app has been approved by Microsoft (very much like Apple has done for years with iOS), it won't run. That's huge, because most of the older Windows apps - most of the apps we now run, in fact, won't execute on Windows 10 S.

A more robust malware defense

From a productivity point of view, that's a drag. But from a malware and vulnerability point of view, locking out the old, much more vulnerable Win32 apps from Windows is a huge boon to security. Windows 10 S is vastly, epically more secure than traditional Windows. While Windows has gotten more and more solid since the days of XP, its Achilles heal has been the apps running on it.

Windows 1.0 to 10: The changing face of Microsoft's landmark OS

Windows 10 S removes that vulnerability, wholesale. Windows 10 S also implements a consistent update mechanism for all applications, so if you're running an app in Windows 10 S, you'll be able to update it and keep it safe using one single interface. You're no longer stuck with downloading and digging around to try to make sure everything is up to date. That, too, is a win for safety and security.

Not necessarily for ultimate power users

For professional power users, locked-down systems like Windows 10 S (and even iOS) are anathema. We understand the need for security, but because we're so often stretching the bounds of computing, we need the full power and all the flexibility that a general purpose computer running Linux, Windows, or Mac OS has to offer.

Take even a simple example. My wife and I have a number of little 25 page-per-minute ScanSnap scanners. We use them to manage the large flow of paper documents we've been dealing with for work and family business. They won't work with an iOS machine, even an iPad Pro, because you can't plug a USB scanner into an iPad. Unfortunately, the ScanSnap software also isn't in the Windows Store, so if you need to do bulk document scanning, S isn't for you. At least not yet.

But Windows 10 S isn't meant for us. By us, I mean all of us old-school professional geeks. We're the folks who manage all of this, use all the power we can find, do complex jobs, build very custom Rube Goldberg-level contraptions to meet certain work needs, and rely on the native flexibility of Windows, not to do stupid things (mostly), but to get our jobs done.

We're not the target demographic for Windows 10 S. And that's where the horror I mentioned at the beginning of this column begins to give way to more of an, "Oh, yeah. That'll work."

Here's the first big win in what Microsoft is doing. They're not forcing S down our throats. They're not taking away a fully functional Windows that allows the installation of non-Store apps and requiring just store apps. That would lead to a revolt. All they're doing is offering another type of Windows that you can choose to use or install. In this way, Microsoft isn't alienating or knee-capping all of its professional users.

You're not losing a sister. You're gaining a brother-in-law.

We had this fear back when Apple introduced the Mac App Store. We thought that all of the powerful apps, many of which defined the power-user Mac experience, might be squelched by the limits of the Mac App Store. Instead, some apps are sold through the App Store and others can be installed like normal. The Mac App Store is there, but it hasn't caused the disruption we feared. That's because it hasn't limited our options. It just gave us another choice.

This is what I've come to realize is the case with Windows 10 S. Yes, if you choose to run Windows 10 S, your options are limited. But if you're a power user, then you probably won't choose to use Windows 10 S. At least on your own machines.

Three prototypical users

But for the machines you manage, Windows 10 S could be a blessing in disguise. I want you to think about three prototypical users and then extrapolate them to the user population as a whole.

First, there's my Dad. He's not around anymore, but in his day, he loved his Windows XP. He was a retired jeweler. He loved passing time surfing jewelry sites using IE. When I tried to move him off of Windows to a Chromebook, he put up a huge fuss. He liked his Windows environment. But he was about as unsafe a surfer as there was. Even worse, jewelry, given that it's a business made up of small and valuable items, is rife with scammers. The jewelry sites he visited, even those that were legitimate, were chock full of malware.

As you might imagine, I had some messes to clean up. At one time, I found a key logger on his machine. The only reason that piece of malware hadn't transmitted his information was that there were so many other malware infections on the machine that they'd effectively strangled each other.

In this case, don't think of my dad as an elderly user. Just think of him, for the purpose of our example, as the force-of-nature family member who doesn't know or care about computer security issues.

Then there's Anakin. Anakin is a student at our school. He, like many of the other students, grew up with digital technology and is used to fixing things and routing around problems and challenges. To him, a firewall or a security policy is usually a shared crack away from being a mere amusement.

The challenge with the Anakins of the world is trying to keep them safe, at the same time as trying to keep them honest. A classic example of where students routed around mobile device management was the LA Unified School District's iPad disaster. LAUSD had installed MDM software to keep the students safe, and limit their browsing destinations. Very quickly, the students found an exploit, nuked their management profiles, and were free to surf wherever they wanted.

While it is possible for Windows 10 S to be bypassed by installing, say, Windows 10 Pro, if the initial deployment policies are set up right, the students' machines could be configured to prevent booting from external devices. If also managed by Microsoft Intune for Education, the MDM software would report any odd behavior, and admins could retrieve the Windows 10 S laptop and rectify the situation.

Our third user is Hank. Hank sells propane. He does it very well. He doesn't know or care much about computers, except that he likes Solitaire and he can enter orders and manage leads using whatever computer he's been handed.

There's one thing about Hank though. He has a super-power: when it comes to making sales, he can't be stopped. If there's a tool or resource that can help him close or manage sales, he'll use it. If that's a deal with Jimmy from the neighborhood, or a new piece of software, it doesn't matter. Hank will use it. It also doesn't matter if that software is good, or safe, or sanctioned by IT. If Hank thinks it'll help him close a sale, he'll find a way to install it.

Everyone loves Hank, but those days when he shows up at the office, computer tucked under his arm, and he's cranky because the machine isn't behaving - those are tough days. Hank's unstoppable, which means he's also not particularly willing to wait in line to have his computer fixed. Again.

It's for these prototypical users (and all those like them) that Windows 10 S is a nearly perfect solution. At least for two of the three, which I'll expand upon below.

It's got potential

While the apps in the Windows Store are still quite limited, if there's decent corporate uptake, more and more apps should find themselves available. Microsoft has a tool called Direct Bridge that helps encapsulate the vulnerabilities in some Win32 apps and make them viable for Windows Store distribution, which will aid in improving availability.

To be sure, not everything everyone would want is in the Windows Store. Photoshop Elements is available, for example, but Premiere Elements is not. If you want to do more professional graphics work, you're completely out of luck. Even so, for the vast numbers of home users with relatively simple needs and all those corporate users who are mostly living in email, collaboration, line-of-business apps, and office apps, Windows 10 S should get the job done in a safely controlled environment.

Yes, there may be some complaining about using Edge instead of Chrome. But Edge doesn't suck, and it has most of the most critical add-ons you need to be productive. If bookmarks are moved over smoothly, most normal users will adapt pretty well.

Student use is another story

Students are a different story. It's ironic, because Microsoft specifically pitched S as a student solution, competing against the Chromebook. But there's going to be pushback.

First, never underestimate the industriousness of a student body under restriction. They may not want to study for their math exam, or even work together to pick teams in dodge ball, but put a barrier in front of them, and all of a sudden you've created an NSA-level think tank. If an MDM-based Windows 10 S deployment is going to be cracked wide open, it's going to be by the kids of Holy Name Middle School in Massapequa.

Part of the reason for this expected frustration is the lack of Steam support in Windows 10 S. While Steam's Gabe Newell once called Windows 8 a "giant sadness," Steam's uptake on Windows 10 has been quite strong. Steam is, itself, an app store for games. As you might imagine, there are multiple issues with running it within another app store.

Separate from the issue of licensing and royalties, many Steam games are older Win32 games or use tweaks within the Windows environment to get the most out of performance. As such, most games on Steam would be just the sort of thing Windows 10 S is designed to prevent from executing. Given this challenge, expect student enthusiasm about a Windows environment that can't run Steam to be tepid at best.

Finally, a lot of educational software is... and as a guy with a Master of Education, I say this as charitably and lovingly as I can... crappy. But when school districts run on a budget, as do many educational software developers, the general inclination is to live with the inconvenience and lack of polish.

You can bet your bottom dollar that most Windows-based educational products are not UWP apps. UWP is the Unified Windows Platform Microsoft has built as a replacement for earlier Windows development architectures. It's more secure, robust, internally consistent - and it's not used by many educational developers. You can also bet that many of these apps are too janky to be able to be ported to Windows Store.

Just say 'S'

S could stand for Special. It could stand for Stupid. Microsoft implies it stands for Student. But you should think of S as Secure and Safe. Windows 10 S won't be used by everyone. What's great is that Microsoft got the message about user choice and it doesn't have to be used by everyone. As such, given that the choice is up to users and IT managers, Windows 10 S is actually a pretty good idea, not bad at all.

Here's the key takeaway quote, from my conversations on S with Ed Bott: "With those apps in the Store (Office 2016 even) you don't have to worry about malware. That's the big point, the huge selling point of Windows 10 S that makes it night and day different from Windows RT."

Adoption isn't going to be altogether smooth or fast, but what is? If some good apps move into the Windows Store (and there's proof of concept for that already with things like Photoshop Elements and Evernote), Windows 10 S will probably be with us for quite some time.

And who knows? Maybe we'll all be a little safer.

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