The new year has been off to a quiet start so far; Microsoft and Apple launched new devices and updates in the fall of 2016 (Surface Studio), but many users were expecting refreshes of core products such as Surface Pro, Surface Book, and iMac this spring. While Apple is yet to show off any new hardware products, Microsoft unleashed a new device and services to tackle one of its archrivals, Google.
Education is the name of the game and an important one for the Redmond-based software giant. Google, with its Chromebooks and Android tablets, has been making significant inroads into education, a core market for both Microsoft and Apple. While Apple seems to be giving up on that segment, Microsoft is hoping to hold onto the mindshare it has left and with good reason.
- Windows 10 S, formerly leaked as “Windows 10 Cloud” is official. Could it be a Chromebook killer?
- New Surface laptops with extended battery life, Windows 10 S and a $999 price tag (Pre-Order now)
- New education tools for administrators (USB deployment, granular management and more) and students (learn to program from Minecraft).
Microsoft Unveils New Software, Services and Hardware for Students and Educators
Providing equal opportunities by democratizing technology for students and educators was a major theme of today’s event. Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, opened the event with a personal story chronicling his grandfather’s limited opportunities, which he used to take his family out of poverty through hard work and talent.
The first in Microsoft’s Education tools is an app to help students learn or improve their reading skills. Microsoft’s Terry Myerson showed how existing features in the Windows 10 Creators Update can help students improve their learning. Microsoft Edge feature, set aside tabs can help organize websites used for research and reference.
Video games have also become a part of the learning experience too. Being a software engineering company, a new code builder feature will become available in Minecraft Education to write code that executes in the game. The collaboration was also a big part of the event; Microsoft’s new Teams social network will keep students updated and maintain a connection to the classroom, anytime, anywhere; so, no more excuses for missing classes.
Windows 10 S – The New Cloud Edition
Windows 10 S is designed for simplicity and streamlined for security with new experiences targetted to educators. During the Windows 10 Creators Update development, there were early leaks of an unreleased edition appeared, dubbed Windows 10 Cloud. Enthusiasts discovered Windows 10 S intentionally lacked support for classic desktop apps; instead, users were directed to download universal apps from the Windows Store. In the Windows 10 Creators Update, users are able to restrict app installation to the Windows Store, but the new S edition makes this mandatory.
Microsoft’s aim with restricting this particular edition to universal apps: it will improve performance, security, and management of the system. This is particularly important in education environments where students are notorious for circumventing restrictions to install games and unwanted apps not authorized by the institution.
Microsoft’s education platform includes new tools to help schools manage their fleet of devices. A new app called Set up School PCs helps administrators configure devices for roll out. Using only a USB drive, administrators can plug into an existing Windows 10 device and have it configured within 30 seconds. Administrators can use setup School PCs to help configure wifi networks and personalize devices. Microsoft is also providing a variant of its orchestration service, called Intune for Education for centrally managing devices even more granularly, such as disabling a device camera.
Office Mobile De-emphasized
A few years ago, a big deal was device-optimized versions of apps. Many developers created mobile versions of their popular apps. Windows 8 and Windows 10 to some extent still suffer from the lack of fully optimized apps for its universal platform. Microsoft introduced touch versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint with Windows 10. These versions lacked the ribbon found in the desktop versions, but it looks like Microsoft is de-emphasizing these versions and putting more focus on its desktop apps, which remain popular.
New Ways and Methods of Learning
Microsoft is also working with partners to integrate mixed reality solutions in classroom lesson plans. Mixed reality itself is a major part of the company’s education platform. A new augmented reality viewer will be coming in the next version of Windows 10, currently codenamed Redstone 3. An Acer MR Windows 10 headset was demoed showing how teachers can engage students even more. A feature called Magic Window lets users see 3D objects in an environment. PowerPoint will get 3D support this fall; users will be able to add 3D models in presentations just like an image.
New partner devices starting at $189 will launch with Windows 10 S, including 1 year of Minecraft and Office 365 Education. Microsoft Intune Education will also be widely available starting this summer. Schools with existing PC’s running Windows 10 Pro will be able to upgrade their devices to Windows 10 S for free.
The Surface Laptop Has Arrived
Microsoft saved the best for last today. Panos Panay, head of hardware, showed off a new family member called the Surface laptop. Images of the device leaked last night. The Surface laptop is not just any generic L shape device. The surface laptop comes in several colors: graphite gold, burgundy, cobalt blue and platinum and its very light, coming in at 2.7 pounds. As of today, they are now available for pre-order.
Using a tapered design, standard features include USB A (no USB-C unfortunately), mini-display port, audio jack and SD card, reader. The surface laptop has a 13.5-inch pixel sense display. It comes bundled with Windows 10 S and includes support for hero features such as Windows Hello, Touch Support, and inking. There is also support for new peripherals such as the Surface dial. The surface laptop can extend battery life by stopping power usage when the lid is closed. Users can expect up to 14.5 hours of battery life. The Surface laptop starts at $999 and comes with an Intel Core i5, 1 TB of storage and will be available on June 15. A Core i7 model is available, but only in platinum.
I have read comments from students expressing their thoughts about Chromebooks and in general, it’s not good. Most describe them as the worst and they couldn’t wait to graduate to buy a MacBook Pro. Microsoft needs to be careful not to develop such contempt with its new products. The hope really is to graduate these users from Windows 10 S users to a full Surface Book or similar devices in the future. So, the influence of these products can shape a young users mind about the platform in 5 years.
Management is only one aspect of meeting the needs of educators. Microsoft realizes today’s students are accustomed to instant gratification experiences (I made that term up). What that means is this: it needs to boot fast; have an extended battery life; and not make you worry about cumulative updates or constant reboots. These are characteristics of Chromebooks today, but Microsoft hopes its new Surface laptop will deliver the same experience, but with a richer set of tools. Windows 10 does have the advantage of being an offline platform in 2017. You don’t need to be connected to the Internet to use apps, listen to music, view your photos or worry about bandwidth constraints. Microsoft is also using its ubiquity with apps like Office 365, OneNote, Paint 3D and Minecraft to deliver a best of both worlds advantage.
It’s hard to tell how successful these will be. Word on iOS and Android have become powerful solutions and it remains to be seen whether students care about this stuff or not. I worked in education for a few years and observed student’s approach to technology: Facebook, Facebook Games, and YouTube. Sure, they know they need to prepare documents in Microsoft Word and they definitely know these are the de facto standards. But, the key here is that mobile play—it’s likely that student who ends up using a Microsoft laptop has an Android or iPhone in their pocket, that unfortunately, remains an area Microsoft has yet to become triumphant.