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Microsoft's new push into education is the right move — at the right time

MS logo
MS logo (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

On May 2, all eyes will be on Microsoft at its New York City event. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is expected to take the stage and unveil a new push into the education market, likely focused on the U.S. initially.

Google has been making big inroads into the K-12 education sector with its low-cost and easy-to-manage Chromebooks. According to IDC's latest numbers, Chromebooks represented 49 percent of that market last year, up from 40 percent in 2015 and just 9 percent in 2013.

Another research firm, Futuresource, puts the number even higher at 58 percent, up from 50 percent in 2015.

Apple, which has taken the brunt of the damage from the Chromebook wave in education in the U.S, meanwhile lost significant momentum in recent years. Apple's iOS, featured on the waning iPad series, went from a peak of 26 percent of the market in 2014 to just 14 percent last year, according to Futuresource.

Microsoft's Windows, by comparison, did better, dropping from 25 percent to 22 percent in that same time period.

For non-U.S. markets, the tale is very different. There, 65 percent of the education market is Windows, with Chrome OS at just six percent and Android at 17 percent. Apple held steady at just nine percent of the global education K-12 markets.

The timing is right for Windows 10 Cloud

Google is on to something with its Chromebook line, at least in the U.S. Combined with hardware support from major manufacturers, a mature app ecosystem, and ease of IT management, Chromebooks are the preferred choice for school IT departments.

In speaking with some local school IT administrators – both public and private – here in Marlborough, Mass., it is the ability to lock down and secure Chromebooks, followed by cost, that is driving Chromebook adoption.

7 things you need to know about Windows 10 Cloud

Microsoft is poised, however, to get back into education. Windows RT was a disaster for the company on many levels, including its confusing name, poor marketing, software limitations, and pricing.

The Windows 10 Cloud OS, which may go by the name "Windows 10 S" when unveiled on May 2, is a different scenario. This time, Microsoft has a story to tell and a strategy to market this version of Windows to the right audience.

Key differences between Windows RT and Windows 10 Cloud OSes include:

  • A more mature Store for Windows Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps.
  • The ability for the OS to be upgraded to a Home or Pro license.
  • Capacity to run Win32 apps via "Project Centennial" bridge apps via the Store.
  • A hardware team that's more in tune with commercial and consumer needs and desires.

Combined with advancements in hardware and improvements to the OS, Microsoft has clear goals it wants to achieve with Windows 10 Cloud.

In an internal document obtained by Windows Central (above), we can see exactly how Microsoft views Windows 10 Cloud as competing against Chromebooks in performance benchmarks.

Additionally, recommended minimum specifications for a Windows 10 "CloudBook" are listed for hardware manufacturers:

  • Quad-core (Celeron or better) processor.
  • 4GB of RAM.
  • 32GB of storage (64GB for 64-bit).
  • A battery larger than 40 WHr.
  • Fast eMMC or solid state drive (SSD) for storage technology.
  • Pen and touch (optional).

Microsoft is focusing heavily on all-day battery life, as evidenced by its new "Power Throttling" initiative that's being tested in recent Windows Insider Program previews for the "Redstone 3" release expected this fall.

Windows 10 on ARM will go further

Windows 10 on ARM is another big step for Microsoft that is expected to come to fruition this fall, as well. With the ability to run what was an x86/64 OS on mobile ARM processors, the company can further drive down hardware costs, improve battery efficiency, and make thinner and lighter devices.

Intel is making significant strides in reducing battery consumption, and Microsoft's Power Throttling goes further. According to the company, its Power Throttling support will be extended to other processor types (currently it is limited to 6th and 7th Generation Intel processors), which likely includes ARM.

The Achilles heel of Windows laptops has always been two-fold: poor battery life, and risk management due to viruses and installing .exe software. Both of those problems are now being ameliorated through Windows 10 Cloud.

Windows 10 on ARM devices are expected at the end of 2017 in the fourth quarter.

Today's Surface Book is too expensive

The current problem for Microsoft and its Surface line is the price.

At Microsoft's Surface Studio event in October 2016, Microsoft's Corporate Vice President of Devices Panos Panay used a photo of his son to demonstrate how children naturally adopt digital inking on a PC. In the picture, presented as a backdrop, the child is using a Surface Book. That device starts at $1,600 and increases to more than $3,000 for the high-end version.

Kids love inking and the Surface Book, but how do you get it into schools?

Kids love inking and the Surface Book, but how do you get it into schools?

While in a perfect world all kids would be able to afford a Microsoft Surface Book, the chances of that happening are minuscule. Clearly, Microsoft needs a lower-cost, entry-level device that provides a similar experience with an emphasis on a touchscreen and digital pen.

A new "Surface Laptop" running Windows 10 Cloud is the ideal solution, if it meets the minimum hardware specifications mentioned earlier. It also could also replace the now deprecated non-pro Surface 3.

Microsoft is expected to announce such a device on May 2, though some of our sources say the new hardware may not come until Microsoft's Build conference the following week.

A traditional laptop without a detachable keyboard would keep production costs down (fewer product SKUs), and it would work for schools, where losing a keyboard (or breaking it) could cause headaches for IT staff. As a solution to making the laptop more Surface-like, the keyboard could rotate around like Lenovo's Yoga series or HP's x360 line.

I also suspect a Surface Pen will be a part of any Surface Laptop, because the recent Creators Update focuses on inking.

The new EPUB support in Windows 10 makes sense when you think of a push into education for Microsoft.

The new EPUB support in Windows 10 makes sense when you think of a push into education for Microsoft.

Likewise, the seemingly odd addition of EPUB support for the Edge web browser and corresponding digital book section in the Windows Store makes more sense once you bring education into the equation.

However, one issue Microsoft could face in schools is app selection. While UWP is evolving and improving the selection of quality apps specifically related to education, it cannot possibly match the Google Play Store. That could change over time, and perhaps Microsoft has some strategies in place to help lure companies to create apps specifically for this genre.

Windows 10 Cloud and Surface for schools makes sense

Recently, a nephew of mine who is nine years old saw my Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. He said, "That looks like my Chromebook." I jokingly corrected him by stating "No, your Chromebook looks like my PC laptop."

The point should be obvious: The education market is critical to Microsoft's future based purely on familiarity. The debate between macOS and Windows preference, for instance, almost always comes down to what you were exposed to first. Rarely in today's world do adults try both OSes, evaluate them equally and come to rational decisions.

Chromebook or PC? The answer may be age dependent.

Chromebook or PC? The answer may be age dependent.

If Google is already at 50 percent adoption in the U.S. education market, that is a generation that's now in the Google and Android ecosystem. Microsoft needs a plan to take that on and, for once, I feel like it may have some significant advantages with Windows 10 Cloud and a new Surface. The recent announcement that it will align the servicing models for Windows 10, Office 365 ProPlus, and System Center Configuration Manager also likely plays a part in this plan.

Windows 10 Redstone 3: Everything we know so far

Microsoft's hardware partners are likely to pick up the slack and deliver even lower cost hardware to run Windows 10 Cloud in the coming months in preparation for fall 2017. All of that combined with Apple's declining popularity in schools is a perfect opportunity for Redmond.

As such, Microsoft's May 2 event could be the start of a significant push for the company — one that will have a lasting effect on a new generation.

Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

  • It's great to see 4Gb RAM is the minimum...
  • One thing I really wish MSFT do is only require 64-bit OS to be installed going forward so that there is less headaches for devs and better hardware support.
  • They literally just announced windows on arm 64 last december. win32 is going to be here for quite some time to come. 
  • When they announce this, they also need to announce partnership with major educational material suppliers.
  • Very TRUE hopmedic. It should be an education ecosystem to rival Google's they present at the event and not just a single product (device and/or OS) and stories.
  • Just a thought, since Microsoft has recently implemented Books service for purchase, they already have the IaaS, PaaS and SaaS available for academic press, university libraries and other academic instututions to begin agreements with Microsoft to have their books available in online libraries which could be secured with Azure authentication and authorization services.  This would be a Win Win scenario for both professors and students as they can read books using Microsoft's cloud services.
  • Here in the Netherlands I've seen more Windows phones than Chromebooks out in the world.
  • Same here, in Hungary 😀
  • Here in Thailand, we don't know what is Chromebooks.
  • @Arthur Netherlands is a smart country with smart peoples...
  • Here in Canada, the only place Chromebooks are popular are with senior care centres and public libraries. Everywhere else, it's still Windows 10 vs Mac OSX.
  • You are mistaken.  Most schoolboards are using Chromebooks at an alarming rate due to their price, ease of use and ease of management.  We as a board have about 800 out and we are considered small.  We do have a few kids that just dont touch Microsoft devices on a daily basis.  
  • Schoolboards on Mars haha
  • MS tends to forget there is a 770 million people market in Europe - indeed with a lot of different languages but still a fairly large consumer market with money to spend.
  • In Ireland chrome book is no where.  BUT sadly irish are sheep and they all have iphone and galaxy 
  • I love Ireland how can you talk about your people like that man! Respect for Irish people, my heart is in the heights! oh! That's Scotland 😄
  • get your countries right first before commenting.
  • I wasn't commenting on you 😎 🤳🏽
  • In new zealand, basically no one has chromebooks. 
  • If they want this to happen in the UK then they will need to get ePUB support into Edge and eBooks onto the store here.
  • That would be the easiest thing ti do on the planet really. Edge already supports ePubs and eBooks in store would just be a matter of license negotiation. Pretty sure more complicated things are needed than that. Mainly, getting the schools to want to carry these computers.
  • Microsoft already offers books in a new app in Creators Update, however this is not a library, its a bookstore, so IMO Microsoft should reuse this SaaS but let universities to publish their online books into this library secured by Microsoft's authentication services, this would let professors know their students which have a registration in the University or Highschool, can have access to the library using Microsoft's Book apps suited as a library. 
  • How should I interpret the performance of quad core "celeron" compared to arm (say snapdragon 800 or 835)?
  • The Qualcomm SD810 v2, or SD617 would be comparable to a Celeron (2013), or Intel Core M3 (1st gen), or even a Core i3 (2nd gen)
    Of course, from there you would be able to tell the newer ARM processors would be much closer to newer Intel Core M5, Core i3/i5, etc.
    Just a heads up: The entire Intel Atom lineup was probably as powerful as a Qualcomm SD 400, 410, or 605.
  • For future reference, what do you base this on? I'd like to be able to do these types of comparisons myself. Thanks
  • 600 & 800 series. Low end is 200 & 400 which should be avoided in future unless its for a specific purpose built device.
  • What does this have to do with the topic?
  • It does, you better be reading the article before commenting.
  • Microsoft should do well enough in ths environment.  I kind of think of the education market as a tye of enterprise market.  If they can prove that is is cheap to install and maintain, they have a comelling sales pitch.  Could anyone please comment on the differences between the utility of a chromebook and Windows device.  Seems to me the windows device has higher utility.  For instance, inking seems to be a big advantage.  If you have a school that is K-12, the differences in computer needs of a senior taking AP physics versus a 1st grader should be significant.  Thus, going form a $200 chromebook to a $1500 surface could be easily managed in a Windows Clould environement.
  • I work at a school where google is everything, they even gave the students google emails. It is terrible. When they try to do something productive, such as write a résumé, I always tell them to get on word. They are forced to use google docs and it is so limited compared to word. They even have older versions of word on older computers, and those are more powerful than google docs. Another thing I don't understand is why do the teachers use Windows 10 and the students use chrome books 🤔. They clearly know Windows is more productive and they decide to give students google services.
  • it's frreeeeeee... (whisper)
  • No. I know for a fact they pay for the services. Students get emails and drive storage just like Microsoft does with exchange and OneDrive. It's the exact same service, but worse. If anything, it's probably cheaper because it is worse.
  • There is probably a huge Linux fanboy running the IT department at your school that finally has the ultimate tool (Chrome OS) for him to use in his holy crusade against Microsofts evil dominance ;-)
  • Lol. I tried. They say its better for the students and I just don't see how its better.
  • It is good for the students and definitely easier for the staff. Chromebooks require almost no support. They basically just need WiFi and an account created for each student. Windows historically isn't anywhere near as easy to manage and requires dedicated IT support. When students log into a Chromebook it automatically has all their settings and files available, no matter what machine they are on. It is really simple and each user has their own separate experience. Windows is getting better here, but it still takes some time when you first log in and Microsoft's services (especially Edge) just aren't really designed for this style of cloud computing. I think this is where Microsoft really needs to improve. Logging in with your Microsoft ID should quickly give you the same experience on any device without having any setup required to use their services. Chromebooks accel here. There are certainly tasks that are tougher to complete on a Chromebook. Computer programming, video editing, CAD, etc. just aren't great experiences. These types of niche classes require niche hardware and services. For the vast majority of tasks required of students, mainly document creation and research, Chromebooks are more than enough.
  • WOW, "They basically just need WiFi and an account created for each student. Windows historically isn't anywhere near as easy to manage and requires dedicated IT support."   What you meant to say is to fully utilize a Chromebook, Wi-Fi/Internet is REQUIRED otherwise its a paperweight!   All too many on here tout the chromebook as good for the student which is CRAP, its cheap and easy for the school to cut corners and further indoctrinate the youth toward a product that has absolutly NO PLACE in the business world or upper education for that matter.  I for one hope MS knocks their introduction out of the park and boot these CRAPbooks to the curb!  I do business with many schools and they all agree, they went with the chromebooks because they were cheap and about the only alternative to textbooks, but they now see the issues with FREE and Google and how they control, track and monitor activities of chromebook users and collect that data so they can use it to sell to companies for marketing purposes.  Google Drive and Gmail, there aren't any bigger security issues in the world than thats two repositories for the NSA, CIA, FBI, etc.  To better prepare students for the work place, using a chromebook and google docs is doing them a disservice...PERIOD!  
  • Schools have so much to hide from the CIA, FBI, etc. Do you hear what you are saying! There is no difference between a child typing a report in Google Docs vs Word. Google Docs is overkill for that function!
  • Google Suite was better for cloud computing 5 years ago when Microsoft had only Outlook and SkyDrive. MSFT Office had to be installed on the computer.
    Now MSFT has caught up and gotten way better as a cloud computing platform compared to others like GSuite or IBM.
  • Google Suite is cheaper compared to Microsoft Azure services
  • Does it matter? Do students actually need every single feature in Word? They need to learn typing, proper sentence structure, APA formatting, etc. That can be done just as well within Google Docs as it can within Word. 
  • I personally feel word is better, but that's what I grew up with. The issue isn't that word is better, the issue is that they are using software that is not at industry standards. So when they go to the work force, they won't have the knowledge to use company software (in today's industry it being MS office).
  • So, my school used Windows XP and Office 2003. When I got to the working world, my company used Windows 7 and Office 2007 - now Windows 2013. There's still a learning curve between the different versions of Office, and I still have to walk people through finding some feature because its location changed from a previous version of Office.  If someone can adjust to the layout of a new version of Office, they can adjust to Office coming from Google Apps. 
  • That I do not know about. If you have enough faith that students can handle change, then so be it. But at the moment we have students who don't understand how the cloud works, or even save a file to a computer. Both of which I learned in high school.
  • so true. some teens even young adults think bad WiFi connection or Cloud Storage problems happens because it's raining outside.
    All the kids these days - all dummies
  • And then there is my employer that grew up in the 1970s and thinks that we should all be using Corel Writer or OpenOffice.
  • Long live Word Perfect!
  • Clearly you have not tried Google docs. It is much more functional than word, much better for collaboration and works any where. Office products stagnate innovation. Teachers use Windows because teachers struggle to change with the times. They prefer to stay in their comfort zone. I have been a teacher for 30 years, have used Microsoft since the beginning and then moved on to Google. The whole ecosystem is far superior to MS. It works and works well. The only changes to Office  over the last 10 years have been minor and superficial. Kids brought up on G Suite have no problem transitioning to Office because they are adaptable. Office users are very rigid in their thinking and to be truthful rather dated
  • You clearly haven't used the recent office as microsoft has collaboration as well. They updated and have added online word, excel that allows multiple users to edit the same document (just like Google). I have tried to use Google docs as I often have to explain it to students.
  • I can agree with you on Office XP till Office 2010, but the newest Office 365 version is so much better and more adaptable to how you want it.
  • Yes but it's playing catchup! You know you guys in here if you're really smart you could wish all the best for chrome as an OS! Competition is better for users, stop with your fanboysm stuff just be smart! Now you are bragging about office 365 having collaborations do you think micrsoft could've brought it if it weren't for competition? Wish all the best to the substitute services you are not using!  i use all OS and I HATE FANBOYS!
  • Really?  A lot of the teachers I know have Macs through their school, not Windows.  Must depend on the district. I agree about Word versus anything else, though.
  • Google Suite (Gmail, Drive, Google Docs) is cheaper per user than Microsoft Azure (Office 365+OneDrive+Outlook). Last time I looked in 2014 the pricing was:
    Google = $9 per user per month
    MSFT = $12 per user per month
    Apple = $8 per user per month (but limited to only Apple devices so no company/school chooses this)
  • We'll have to see what MS offers schools. MS often operates as a charity, and I expect they will see the humanitarian side of this. I'd put money on them creating a special deal for schools. 
  • Is there any evidence that inking is beneficial from a learning point of view? Its a nice idea (and gives a good marketing story) but if it comes at added expense perhaps schools should be wary of spending extra money on devices with inking support, especially after so many wasted money on ill-considered iPads. At least until there is evidence of benefit.
  • You're kidding right? I guess you never thought that a student could take notes with a pen. It is so much easier to handwrite notes and the ability to add diagrams and drawings is phenominal! A Windows 2-1 device and OneNote will draw circles around a Chromebook any day. Chromebook is last century in comparison. Teachers can share their lecture notes with students. Students can share notes with oneanother - all without ever needing to use a keyboard! Every subject benefits from easy pen input. Science, Math, History, Art. Everywhere you have more than just words a pen is a great idea. Try drawing a diagram for physics with a keyboard. Or doing math problems. Or Art. You will quickly understand what I mean. Modern versions of Windows on 2-in-1 devices are exactly what students need in the classroom. They provide almost every conceivable manner of input that a student might need and they do it well. The only thing Chromebooks had going for it was cost, setup and a strong ABM (anything but Microsoft) attitude. Modern Windows 2-in-1 devices can do both and so much more. Schools were burned by iPads, and when they see how much more they can do with Windows 2-in-1 devices than Chromebooks it will be like the iPad all over again.
  • I didn't ask what the idea behind it is. I asked if there is any evidence that it actually benefits learning. The idea is obvious but just because something sounds appealing in theory does not mean it is actually beneficial in practice. If there have been any convincing studies that show learning is enhanced by student use of a stylus equipped computing device (compared to just traditional pen and notebook for notetaking) please link me to them.  If they don't yet exist, I would question the wisdom of schools investmenting in stylus-equipped devices for students just because they sound good in theory. Stylus-equipped devices for teachers is a different issue, and would presumably make much less of a contribution to overall expenditure anyway.
  • It allows you to take your own notes, adding notes to web pages, documents, etc. If notation and note taking is considered useful, which of course it is, then ink is useful. I think the price difference, will be trivial. Adding acrive stylus support to a display doesn't cost a lot for a manufacturer. We are talking sort of 20 bucks here. 
  • $20 to the manufacturer, but what about the added cost to the schools, factoring in inevitable regular loss and damage to styluses? Surely more than the cost of pen and paper. Hence my question above as to whether there is evidence it provides added learning benefit over notetaking via pen and paper.
  • Schools spend quite a bit of money on printing, so I think that pretty much neutralises out. It's basically its people making notes on digital stuff, rather than paper. So on the website, or document, or map, rather than printing it out and doing the same. So its basically more accessible digitally. You get some great digital art programs on windows too, which offers a new subject currently not given much focus, but of high commercial importance - digital media.  I doubt anyones done any studies on this though.   
  • Well, windows cloud, I imagine a free license product running on the cheaper ARM chipsets, will be basically the same cost as a chromebook. It'll be cheap. Windows has touch capability, stylus capability, and Ink. It also has the ability to upgrade to full windows 10. 
  • "Windows 10 S"?  That would be just as confusing as Windows RT.  I hope they keep Cloud in the name, even though that is not exactly what this is.  Although "Cloud" is more of a concept, so it does make sense to use here.
  • To be honest, we thought Edge was a bad name for the browser, specially compared to Spartan. But we got used to it quick.
  • I still call it Project Spartan
  • Yes, but the average consumer might not adopt it in the same way as those who regularly stay on top of Windows news. Personally, I think the S doesn't signify anything if it isn't marketed very well, people might think it stands for something like 'Speed' or 'Special'. If they called it 'Lite' or 'Education' it would at least get the point across in some respects.
  • Maybe win10 lite? (i know, i know, 0 creativity... I know where the door is)