Windows 10 S: Can Microsoft avoid another Windows RT blunder?

Has the Redmond giant learned from the mistakes it made with Windows RT? Is it making a whole set of new mistakes, or is Windows 10 S a credible threat to Google's Chrome OS platform?
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor
Windows 10 S: Can Microsoft avoid another Windows RT blunder?

Windows 10 S

Microsoft has unveiled a new edition of Windows -- Windows 10 S -- that sits alongside the two existing OEM and retail editions, Home and Pro, and has been designed from the ground up to compete with Google's Chrome OS platform. But has the Redmond giant learned from the mistakes it made with Windows RT?

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On the face of it, Windows 10 S seems a lot like Windows 10, but in reality, they are two entirely different operating systems. While Windows 10 S shares the familiar look and feel or Windows 10, includes a whole raft of Pro features such as Mobile Device Management (MDM) and BitLocker, and will run on anything that will run Windows 10, there are also some key differences.

Possibly the most critical difference is that like its predecessor, Windows RT, Windows 10 S won't be able to run regular Windows applications, and it will instead be limited to running what's available in the Windows Store. However, if you just can't live with that restriction, Microsoft will offer Windows 10 S users a free upgrade to Windows 10 Pro this year, and beyond that, an upgrade will cost a very reasonable $50.

As a counterbalance to the whole "you can only run apps from the Windows Store" thing, a big upside to Windows 10 S is that it offers significant performance and battery life improvements compared to the regular old Windows 10 platform.

So, it's all good, right?

Well, maybe not.

First off, there's the name.

There are well over a billion Windows PC users worldwide, and these people all have a preconceived idea of what "Windows" means to them. Yes, the look and feel is part of that "Windows" experience, but the cornerstone to many of the "Windows" experience is the flexibility to run the applications they want to run on the hardware they want to run it on. Windows RT failed, in part at least, because of brand confusion, and it feels like Microsoft is determined to make the same mistake again. Sure, this time around, users can upgrade the operating system in the event of buyer's remorse, but it doesn't do anything to alleviate the confusion in the first place.

Also, it is widely rumored that Microsoft has plans to get back into the ARM-powered laptop market, and right now, Windows 10 S would seem to be the platform to install on that hardware. But that opens the door to a situation where Intel-powered Windows 10 S hardware could be upgraded to Windows 10 Pro while ARM-powered hardware could not.

Perhaps Microsoft could add another suffix to the branding to clear things up? After all, that worked with Windows RT... oh wait.

Bottom line is that I think that Windows 10 S is going to confuse people, and this is going to continue to be the case until Microsoft can see a future beyond Windows.

Another problem is the message.

On the one hand, Microsoft is making a huge deal of how lightweight Windows 10 S is, but on the other hand, it chose to debut the operating system on the Surface Laptop, a system that starts at $999. At that price, the Surface Laptop is hardly a Chromebook competitor, although that said, a thousand dollars does only get you a system with 4GB of RAM and a single USB 3 port, with no USB-C or Thunderbolt.

Sure, tying Windows 10 S to the Surface Laptop gives the fledgling operating system some instant credibility and prestige, but it also associates it with high-end hardware right out of the gate.

As to whether Windows 10 S is a competitor to Google's Chrome OS, I think that debate will only be answered with time. Trying to compare Windows 10 S to Chrome OS (or for that matter macOS or iOS) is pretty pointless since success or failure usually comes down to the factors such as price, ease of use, and the wider ecosystem. Given Microsoft's past Windows RT blooper, combined with how well (comparatively at any rate) Chromebooks seem to be selling, OEMs and buyers alike might just stick with what they already know over taking a leap into the unknown.

But with education systems having a starting price tag of $189 -- and that includes a free subscription to the education edition of Minecraft -- it's possible that Chromebooks will start to feel the pinch.

Next, we come to the issue of trust.

Here's a key question that Microsoft needs to answer: Just how committed is Microsoft to Windows 10 S? I mean, in the wake of the glitz and glamour of product launches, the past decade is littered with costly failures and corporate backtracking -- Kin, Zune, Windows Mobile, Nokia, and Windows RT to name just a few. While tech pundits are usually keen to point how these blunders cost Microsoft billions of dollars, it's also important to remember that these tech clangers also cost consumers, enterprise customers, OEMs, and developers, and eroded a lot of trust in Microsoft.

And while on the subject of developers, if Microsoft wants Windows 10 S to be a success, then it needs to encourage developers to populate the Windows Store with high-quality apps. And for developers to want to do that, it's got to be worth their time and effort to do so. This won't be easy to do, especially since Microsoft will be offering frustrated Windows 10 S users a cheap and easy upgrade to Windows 10 Pro, thus allowing them to break free of the Windows Store.

Popular Windows "desktop" applications could be made to work with Windows 10 S by repackaging them and making them available through the Windows Store, but it all takes developer effort, and it hands a cut of the sale price over to Microsoft -- all with no guarantee of a return on that investment.

How developers react to Windows 10 S could be key to whether it sinks or swims.

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