What will it mean to 'manage' Windows on ARM tablets?

Will Windows on ARM devices find an accepting home in the corporate world? Microsoft has some manageability plans to try to keep consumers and IT admins both happy.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

There's been a debate raging for the past few months among Microsoft watchers and enthusiasts about how and if Microsoft planned to allow businesses to manage Windows on ARM tablets and PCs.

Many of us had been assuming that Microsoft might attempt to leverage the ability to manage Windows on ARM devices as a way to differentiate these coming tablets and PCs from iPads. But in February of this year, a Microsoft white paper made it seem the plan was to exclude Windows on ARM tablets from joining Active Directory domains -- as is true for iPads.

This week, when announcing the Windows 8 SKU line-up, Microsoft officials confirmed that Windows on ARM devices -- running an operating system version that Microsoft has officially christened "Windows RT" -- would not support domain join. (PCs and tablets with x86/x64 processors running Windows 8, the consumer version of Windows 8, also are not going to be allowed to join domains, for what it's worth.)

But there will still be ways for business customers to "manage" line-of-business (LOB) apps on Windows on ARM devices, according to an April 19 blog post on the Microsoft "Building Windows 8" blog. LOB apps can be anything from a corporate e-mail client, to custom-built apps specific to a company's business.

Windows 8 on x86/x64 will be able to be managed using System Center Configuration Manager and Windows Intune. But "(s)ince WOA PCs only support third-party code through the Windows Store and WinRT-based applications, we set out to develop industry-leading management capabilities that support BYO (bring your own) or company-deployed WOA PCs," said Windows President Steven Sinofsky in an introduction to the latest blog post.

I believe -- after several re-readings of the blog post -- that Microsoft is planning to make the coming version of Windows Intune (which went to beta this week) the way it manages WOA tablets and PCs. The post, authored by Jeffrey Sutherland, a Program Manager Lead in Microsoft's Management Systems Group, never quite spells this out, however. Here's what it does say:

"For WOA, we have integrated a new management client that can communicate with a management infrastructure in the cloud to deliver LOB apps to users. "You’ll hear more about this management infrastructure at a later date from our friends on the System Center blog, so this post will focus on the benefits and capabilities of the WOA management client itself."

(I'm thinking the reason this isn't called out as the coming version of Intune might be because Microsoft still isn't officially supporting Windows 8 or Windows on ARM/Windows RT devices with the beta of the so-called Windows Intune 3. It is, however, supporting iPads, iPhones, Windows Phones, Windows PCs and Android devices with the beta.)

Because Windows Intune 3 is based around an Exchange ActiveSync model, there's no obvious reason it couldn't manage Windows on ARM devices. In fact, Mary Branscombe over on ZDNet UK made a compelling, albeit it speculative, case for the new Intune being the vehicle for managing Windows RT systems.

The new WOA management offering will include  a built-in Metro-style client app called an agent, and a a Metro-style app, known as the  self-service portal (SSP) that consumers can use to browse for and install LOB apps. So if a user brings a WOA tablet/PC to work, administrators will be able to control which business apps they will allow them to install on their PCs using the SSP.

There are four kinds of business apps that admins can make available via the portal:

  • Internally-developed Metro style apps that are not published in the Windows Store
  • Apps produced by independent software vendors that are licensed to the organization for internal distribution
  • Web links that launch websites and web-based apps directly in the browser
  • Links to app listings in the Windows Store

The coming "management infrastructure" for Windows on ARM devices will go beyond Intune itself to include  activation keys, certificates, and other safeguards. So maybe Microsoft still does have some designs on getting Windows on ARM devices into businesses/enterprises, after all -- and isn't going to position them as consumer/media tablet type devices only, as some of us have been surmising.

That said, I'm sure there's no thought in Redmond that anything running Windows RT should be held up as a PC replacement, either -- despite the fact that iPads are increasingly finding their way into businesses as PC alternatives. ...

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