Windows 10 S Mode in Education

Microsoft's education push continues, with improved software delivery and new hardware.

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One of my tasks this Christmas, as a peripatetic family sysadmin, was setting up new laptops for my niece and nephew. They're both at the age where their school needs them to bring their own laptops, loaded with Office and with a handful of educational apps that the school uses.

We chose a pair of budget Lenovo devices, targeted at the education market, running Windows 10 in S mode. That seemed to be a sensible choice, as their parents could control how they used the device, and they'd be more secure in the unknown environment of a busy school network. With Office now in the Microsoft Store it should have been easy — until we came to install one of the school's chosen apps, which didn't have a store version.

That led to a quick switch from S mode to a standard Windows, which was now able to install software from anywhere. What had been a managed Windows was now open to the world, and while it was still controlled as part of a Family Microsoft account, it would be relatively easy for malicious software to sneak around those basic protections.

Does that mean that Windows 10 in S mode is useless? Or is it still too early to make a judgement? It was a question I found myself asking as I walked around the stands at the BETT education event in London at the end of January.

What is Windows 10 in S mode?

Microsoft introduced its Windows Store-only version of Windows 10 with the first Surface Laptops. Designed to reduce the risk of malware running on a PC, it locked down installations to Windows Store apps. PCs running Windows 10 S could only install UWP apps or Win32 code that had been wrapped using the Windows Desktop App Converter.

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It's a good idea, but one that's held back by the Windows Store. The long tail of support for Win32 in Windows 7 and Windows 10 makes it easiest for developers to concentrate on that, rather than UWP. That's not a criticism of UWP, which is now where the latest Windows APIs are to be found, and with each Windows 10 release it adds new features. But if you need to support the education market, then you need to support the largest possible number of PCs. With education budgets continually constrained, schools still need to manage Windows 7 devices.

MSIX: a new installer for Windows 10 and for Windows 7

One new technology that should make it easier to deploy Windows 10 in S Mode is MSIX, the next-generation Windows installer. Designed to support both Win32 and UWP, it's perhaps best thought of as a merging of the customisable .msi installer familiar to Win32 administrators, and the digitally signed, isolated UWP .appx.

MSIX allows admins to build configuration modules and add them to an installer, without changing the underlying code. The modified installer can then be deployed via private stores using tools like Intune for Education, signing installers with a school's own certificate and using Azure Active Directory to target specific applications at specific classes and groups of pupils. The same installer will work on older systems, and it's being supported by most of the major software installers, so educational software vendors will be able to switch to it quickly.

With a single installer that can be used on the Windows Store and directly on Windows 7 systems, .msi files should become a thing of the past, allowing software to support Windows 10 S mode and reducing security risks on educational networks.

New education devices for 2019

Certainly hardware vendors are still showing support for Windows 10 S mode devices in their educational ranges. BETT saw the launch of seven new low-cost educational laptops, all running Windows 10 in S mode, from Acer, Lenovo and Dell. Perhaps the most interesting was Lenovo's 300e 2-in-1, with a built-in stylus. While the stylus remains the best option for tablet mode, if it's lost it can be temporarily replaced with a number 2 pencil.

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Lenovo's new 300e 2-in-1 can use a regular number 2 pencil for on-screen input if the included stylus is lost or mislaid.

Image: Microsoft

I gave it a try, first picking up a recently sharpened pencil, which didn't work too well, and then one that had obviously seen some use. It turns out that a blunt pencil interacts well with Lenovo's touch-screen technology, and it worked reasonably well. You do lose palm rejection when switching from Lenovo's active pen, but a pencil lets students keep working if a pen fails. It's an option I'd like to see on more devices.

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A more expensive option is Microsoft's own Surface Go. I've been using one for a while as a secondary device, running OneNote. OneNote and pens are at the heart of much of Microsoft's education strategy, and the Surface Go is clearly targeted at that use case.

Introducing the Classroom Pen

One downside for schools that might consider the Surface Go is the cost of Microsoft's own pens. At around $99 for a Surface Pen, distributing them to a class is a significant investment. While the AAAA batteries that power the pens last a long time, they can run out, and pens can easily get lost. BETT saw the launch of a new education-focused version of the Surface Pen. Not only is it significantly cheaper, it has added a hole for a lanyard, allowing kids to hang them round their necks when they're not in use.

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The Classroom Pen is a new option for use with Microsoft's Surface Go. At $39.99 it's considerably cheaper than the regular stylus, but is only sold in packs of 20 for $799.80.

Image: Microsoft

With two buttons and hardened tip, the new Classroom Pen is an effective alternative to its more expensive alternative. Sadly it's unlikely to appear in general circulation, as it's only sold in packs of 20 to schools and other educational establishments. At just under $800 for a pack of 20, it's equivalent to $39.99 a pen — nearly a third of the cost of the Surface Pen for much the same set of capabilities.

Devices like this, and developments like MSIX, show that Microsoft isn't giving up on Windows 10 S mode. The promise of a locked-down Windows that can only run digitally-signed software from trusted sources is a seductive one, both for schools and for businesses that need to support front-line workers. Windows 10's S mode is a first attempt at delivering on the promise, on Intel and ARM hardware. It'll be interesting to see what Microsoft does next for this increasingly important audience.

By Simon Bisson

Born on the Channel Island of Jersey, Simon moved to the UK to attend the University of Bath where he studied electrical and electronic engineering. Since then a varied career has included being part of the team building the world's first solid state...