Microsoft mangled the pitch for Surface Laptop and Windows 10 S, but it doesn't matter

On May 2, Microsoft unveiled Windows 10 S – its education play – and the new Surface Laptop, which is for higher education.

In talking to people on Twitter, reading comments, and following the internet zeitgeist, it's clear Microsoft muddled the delivery of the Surface Laptop. Despite that conflation, I don't think it matters, but I want to hit on a few points of confusion.

Windows 10 S is for schools (and eventually for consumers too)

Microsoft would love to ditch "classic" Win32 apps. If this is news to you, then you haven't been paying attention. The Universal Windows Platform (UWP), while still nascent, will be positioned to as a real development platform for PC, tablets, mobile, and even cross-platform in the next few years.

It's smart too. The same thing that makes Windows influential and far-reaching – installable .exe apps and games – is its Achilles Heel for consumers too. Viruses, PCs that slow down after years of usage, poor battery life, instability – all of this is often the result of consumers installing janky software off the internet. While such a system is fine for pros, it's bad for your parents (and kids).

Installable .exe apps and games are what made Windows popular — and are its Achilles Heel, too.

Things are better with Windows 10 because of Windows Defender and SmartScreen, but the long-term solution is curated and screened apps that are properly siloed by the operating system. The system for that is UWP, where apps can be uninstalled with no remnants, leave the registry unsullied, are vetted by Microsoft, and distributed via the Windows Store.

Admittedly, UWP is not there yet as a Win32 replacement. There are missing APIs, Project Centennial can't handle all requests, etc. I expect Microsoft to have some announcements around this next week at Build 2017, but UWP is a multi-year project.

Microsoft may focus on desktops with UWP — here's why you should care

While Microsoft is rightly positioning Windows 10 S for schools, the long-term goal is that it becomes just Windows for consumers. Microsoft needs more high-profile apps though, like Spotify (Project Centennial, by the way) and third-party browsers. I think over the next several months we'll see an influx of those apps in the Store.

Why Windows 10 S is not Windows RT

Another bit of confusion I saw from people was conflating Windows RT from 2012 with Windows 10 S.

This contrast could not be any more wrong. Here are a few of the advances of Windows 10 S juxtaposed with Windows RT:

  1. It runs on new x86/x64 hardware and not an old, slow ARM processor (e.g. Windows RT).
  2. It can run Win32 applications through the Store (Project Centennial).
  3. With one-click it can be upgraded to full Windows 10 Pro. (This option is always free for school licenses.)
  4. The Store in 2017 is vastly improved from the Store in 2012.
  5. Windows 10 S is not a tablet OS; it's a laptop and PC one.
  6. It can handle Windows Mixed Reality.

Folks, those are not trivial details.

The ability of Windows 10 S to run on standard PC hardware, handle third-party drivers for peripherals, run "classic" Win32 applications, or just turn into "full" Windows 10 Pro is huge.

Why Windows 10 S on the Surface Laptop?

If there is one issue I had with the May 2 event, it was the odd transition from discussion K-12 education to college kids with the Surface Laptop.

Windows 10 S was positioned as a competitor to Google's Chrome OS in schools for 90 minutes. While Chrome OS was never mentioned, that was the subtext. From improvements to manageability with InTune for Education (huge news) to the focus on quick start times and long battery life, Windows 10 S is a viable alternative to Chrome OS.

For U.S. schools with existing licenses, they get Windows 10 S for free. Any machine with Windows 10 S can be upgraded for free to the Pro version of Windows at any time.

That's all fine, but suddenly the Surface Laptop is being positioned against Apple MacBook and MacBook Air and aimed at college kids who need an excellent computer for four years.

Anyone who has been on a college campus knows Apple dominates. Macs are everywhere and for those who think they're too expensive for college kids, well, visit your local university.

Windows 10 S though is suddenly being conflated as an OS for a $1,000 laptop. Lost in the message were the eight low-cost laptops announced by HP, Dell, Acer, and more that start at $189.

Those are the Chromebook competitors, not the Surface Laptop.

HP, Dell, Acer, and others announced low-cost laptops starting at just $189. Those are the Chromebook competitors, not the Surface Laptop.

Windows 10 S does make some sense for college kids too. Heck, I'm fine with running just Windows Store apps right now. When I interact with "normies" a.k.a. people who don't read this site, their PC usage is very straightforward. It's 90 percent web browser, and the rest is a mix of a mail app, Microsoft Office, and some services e.g. Spotify, iTunes, Netflix.

While many PC users install Steam, "hack" their registry, or modify the shell with goofy Windows 7 Start Menus, those are the ten percenters.

I think Microsoft put Windows 10 S on the Surface Laptop for two main reasons:

  1. Use your product – It would be weird if Microsoft boasted all those benefits to Windows 10 S like long battery life, fast resume times, and security only to turn around and not use it themselves for its new laptop.
  2. Consumer transition to UWP - Microsoft must start somewhere with ditching Win32 for consumers. Why not release high-profile hardware that defaults to this new system? This transition away from Win32 is happening and will continue to happen. This positioning is one of those major milestones.

In the end, though, it does not matter if you're confused.

Surface Laptop is just Windows

When the Surface Laptop lands in people's laps on June 15 the experience will be familiar. It's just a fancy laptop, after all. They will turn it on, begin to use the Store and set up their accounts.

That moment when a non-PC enthusiast tries to install a Win32 app that is not from the Store they will get a simple message informing them of that limitation. They will then have the option to unlock Windows 10 Pro and continue as usual.

Total time to accomplish this feat: about 30 seconds. Full cost? $0 (through 2017; for schools it's always free).

While technically this is a barrier, the bar is so low here that I can't defend the position that it's troublesome. Compared to what Android users must agree to each time an app is installed this upgrade process is trivial.

So why even offer Windows 10 S? Simple, there will be a lot of people who don't unlock Pro. Fast forward six months or a year from now there will be even fewer upgrades. As the Windows Store populates with more Centennial Win32 apps the need to get apps outside the Store will diminish.

While technically Windows 10 S presents a barrier, the bar is so low here that I can't call it troublesome.

No doubt, this changeover is a process, but Microsoft must start somewhere. The important part is the company made it easy to escape those limitations. That was never the case with Windows RT.

If you are reading this, you are likely to unlock the Surface Laptop to Windows 10 Pro. That's fine. Some buyers won't and won't have to, and that's the main point.

For me, once Slack, Office, and Adobe Photoshop Elements came to the Store I could do my job with just Store apps. Games like Minecraft for Windows 10, Fallout Shelter and Pinball FX 2 for Windows 10 keep me entertained. Sling, Hulu, and Netflix cover my video-on-demand needs. I don't even need to install F.Lux anymore with Night Light.

Your usage might be different, but over the next few years, if Microsoft's plan goes accordingly, you too will be able to slowly give up non-Store apps. The ease of app updates, security, battery life, and preservation of your PC will be worth it.

And hey, if it's not and you want your "classic" Windows instead, well Microsoft will let you have your cake and eat it too.

Daniel Rubino
Editor-in-chief

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been here covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics and ran the projectors at movie theaters, which has done absolutely nothing for his career.

220 Comments
  • I think Microsoft is repeating the same mistake with WP7. Wp7 was not free and not many OEMs/consumers have adopted it. The same will happen with windows 10 S.
  • Not really. W10S to W10Pro is "only" $49 for a reason (for general consumers, not schools - free for schools) !!
    .
    On the other hand its around $149 for Home to Pro.
    .
    Once W10S gets mass adoption, more Win32 apps via Centennial WILL come to the 'Microsoft' store. Spotify is just the beginning. This is definitely more secure than Home and Pro for the casual user. THAT is the difference.🙂
    .
    THIS IS NOT Windows RT. It's BETTER.
  • But a lot of schools dont plan to upgrade their pcs atm. Making Windows 10 S free would encourage schools to at least upgrade their OS (vista, 7, 8). That in return will leave a footprint in the store. Then, higher downloads > devs.
  • Yes, that's correct @hacer619. They should do that for students.
  • Thank you
  • It doesn't matter that the OS is free. The reality is that there are already better options than Windows 10 S on the market--Chrome and iOS.  Perhaps, Microsoft can persuade some educators to switch because Office is installed... but that's about the only motivator to move to this OS. The reality is that the biggest draw of Windows is those Win32 apps that Microsoft despises so much. Once you remove those, there's very little reason to reach for a Windows PC.
  • iOS is #3 for schools and losing ground fast; Microsoft and Windows is #2. This is for the US. In Europe, Windows is still king.
  • Asian countries too. Windows is No. 1.Android only in mobile market. no 2 is IOs and chromebooks are nearly non existent
  • Yep, I was surprised when the article stated that universities were pretty much all Apple. That's just nothing like the case in the UK. I have a feeling it's just a regional issue, no big thing.
  • @Daniel Rubino IMHO your take on whether or not this is or is not RT lacks nuance. Obviously W8 is not W10. However, W10 is a continuation of W8. Similarly, Windows S is not Windows RT, but it is a continuation of Windows RT. W10 is designed so solve the same basic problems and serve the same basic needs as W8. That's what makes it a continuation. Windows S is also designed to solve the same basic problems and serve the same basic needs as Windows RT. Windows S is designed to popularize the Windows Store, improve security and simplify computing for the average consumer by "just working". It does so by limiting the source of software to the Windows Store. This allows MS to screen software for addware, spyware and malware and enforce a fully standardized and reliable software install, update and removal process. This prevents OS rot (registry deteriorization, etc) and many of the maintainability headaches caused by normal Win32 software which you mentioned in this article. The previous paragraph sums up the primary reason why Windows S exists! All of it applied equally to Windows RT, meaning it existed for the exact same reasons. That's why Windows S is a continuation of Windows RT! Everything else Windows S does is secondary to the above. Windows S certainly has many capabilities and features that Windows RT lacked, and as you stated many of them are very noteworthy, but the mission statements of both Windows RT and Windows S are the same. Stating that "the comparison to Windows RT could not be any more wrong" is therefore, well, wrong. Considering both OSes most fundamental goals are identical, the comparison is absolutely correct! It's understandable that MS would prefer not to have Windows S associated with the now toxic Windows RT brand. I support that since labeling it RT would instanlty doom it in the eyes of most consumers. However, here at WCentral it would be nice to get a little more depth. Windows S is not RT, true, but viewing it as a continuation of RT is helpful in the sense that this view emphasizes strategy and purpose over technical details. Portraying an issue solely through MS' marketing lens is usually the inferior approach.
  • You're welcome. :)
  • Windows 10 S isnt available for purchase, nor can you upgrade a current device to 10 S, it's a device specific OS, and the devices are dirt cheap
  • 👍 Yes, that's the idea. Dirt cheap. 🙂
  • Maybe upgrade is not the right term since I beleive it would require a clean install, but from the article. For U.S. schools with existing licenses, they get Windows 10 S for free. This ca
  • It's free upgrade for the existing W10 Pro licenses only.  (Reverse upgrade)
  • The article states schools with existing licenses can upgrade for free, which typically means there will likely be an iSO showing up on MSDN. It's not restricted to educational or any specific device, given that the Surface Laptop, a high-end device that will be in their consumer-facing stores, will be selling it. It's just another, albeit more restricted, version of Windows.
  • @hacer619 -- it is free for those schools. Daniel wrote in the article above, "For U.S. schools with existing licenses, they get Windows 10 S for free."
  • That's good, but still it is US only
  • That's good, but still it is US only
    That's because the roll-out is US focused ATM (ChromeOS is a much bigger threat there), it doesn't mean it won't apply to other countires/regions to cement their hold in those countries/regions, & increase the WW UWP user-base. 
  • "For U.S. schools with existing licenses, they get Windows 10 S for free."  From the article.
  • that refers to device licensing, schools will be able to upgrade from their current HW licenses running Win7/8/10 to 10S for free, sort of like a cell phone trade in. Schools don't do traditional OS licensing like consumers
  • Are you 100% certain?
  • If the schools have Windows for Education, then can probably upgrade to Windows 10 as part of their agreement, without additional license costs. I know they said if you they have Windows 10 already, then can convert machines to Windows 10 S.
  • Undoubtedly those OS versions are no longer supported (I'd I remember the dates correctly), so even getting free updates is out of the question from a business perspective. The licenses do not transfer to a supported OS.
  • Like most enterprise.  Education usually have licensing agreements in place and based on agreements they would be able to access most software and recieve updates as long as their agreements in place with SA.   So really making it free wouldnt matter much.  If they can get the hard ware out and in place before schools do hardware refresh would be the smartest play.  
  • Yea, and a normal consumer is really mixed saying "another" surface? Doesn't we already have books, pros and studios, then thinking unnessassary, education? And how the heck can a student afford such a expensive device..dont need! While those fanboys who understand says "wow what a great device" but they are only couple of thousands👍😂another confusing move by MS
  • That's the reason HP, DELL, ACER, ASUS, etc have released those $189-$300 laptops/tablets/2-in-1's.
  • Not really. A student can buy any laptop and use it. Let it be windows, mac or Chromebook. But the Surface laptop is actually targeting students owing a macbook or planning to buy one.
  • Those who can afford it, will buy it! 🙂
  • It aint a big market though, but this is thank god only for the States. Students aren't rich, they live on loans, but maybe students in US are spoiled👍😂
  • That's the bottom line.
  • dude, cheap laptops from HP or Acer are reality since 201x.. and the starting price of those cheap laptops is around 250 with FULL Windows 8.1/7 not to mention the Chinese market with even lower prices with FULL Windows experience    
  • What's your problem @pappale... No one is FORCING consumers to buy W10S devices right !!! If they want it and are fine with it, they'll BUY it. If they want W10Pro, they will buy devices that run Pro.
    .
    If no one is interested in 10S, MSFT will definitely notice that, probably take a market survey and then decide what to do (whether to kill 10S or make it free).
    .
    In my opinion, they should make it FREE for OEM's.
  • I know you're just a troll and don't deserving feeding, but just in case new folks think your comments might have some merit... Your biggest flaw is always that you don't understand context. Windows 10 S is not for you. It's not even for me personally. But it is for me when I decide to upgrade my children's PCs (I have 2. 6 & 10). With 10 S and a curated experience I can control the content on their devices better through MS Family Safety & not have to worry about cleaning up after my son decides to install a dodgy Minecraft mod, and when they outgrow the limitations I can upgrade the OS without the need to buy new computers. Same goes for my mom. Everything she needs on a PC is in the Store and I won't need to tech her PC at all. It's a win for me, and a win for the users I support.
  • Which were not well marketed.
  • Actually the surface laptop is a great move from Microsoft. A lot of students own expensive MacBooks these days. So i think buying expensive surface products won't be an issue for them. But my thought is that Microsoft should offer this OS free for schools were it will be deployed on a lar