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S is for Sandbox: The logic behind Microsoft's new lockdown Windows gambit

Surface Laptop – like seeing a Tesla advertised on late-night teleshopping

Analysis Microsoft had two strategic problems to address yesterday. Over several years, the PC has been taking its long, sad journey into becoming a niche. But more recently, Google has leapt into the US education market, going from zero to over 50 per cent in three years.

Redmond's response is unexpected, but also confusing. Rather than copying Google with a cloudbook offering of its own – something many pundits expected (the rumours referred to a "Windows 10 Cloud Edition") – Microsoft and its OEM partners have launched an artificially crippled version of Windows, Windows 10 S, which can be "upgraded" into full-fat Windows if you pay a fee to untick the "run all apps" box: an irreversible, one-time action. Otherwise it can only be managed by the education software, and only run Windows Store apps. The release fee applies to all Windows S laptops, but it's zero until the end of the year.

If you're thinking that this harks back to the era when a proprietary mainframe "upgrade" involved paying a manufacturer to send an employee to your premises to open the box and flick a switch (we're looking at you, ICL) then, yes, you're not far off the mark:

Pay $50, flick the switch, and open the sandbox! Windows S was well supported yesterday with a range of cheap and cheerful budget laptops from Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, HP, Samsung and Toshiba.

So we got lots of durable low-end tat, just what classrooms need. With some management wizards to make admin easier. Software, the weak spot of all education IT, was addressed with bundling: an offer of digital heroin, Minecraft. But not just low-end tat.

Presumably this wasn't sexy or eye-catching enough so confusingly Microsoft also unveiled its first laptop, er, Surface Laptop. This turns out to be a superb premium device targeting the vacancy left by Apple, which inexplicably won't be updating its ageing Air line.

And they were yoked together because "they both run Windows S".

It was incongruent, to say the least. Few people will pay over $1,000 to buy such a superb machine as the Surface Laptop and run the sandboxed Windows S. I would say "nobody" but there will be somebody, there always is.

It was like discovering a new Tesla model being sold on a late-night shopping channel, like QVC. Only 20 left! Hurry! I bet if you'd spent years perfecting the laser etching of the fabric, you'd be well chuffed that it's been thrown into an education event. But here we are.

The clue for the decision comes in the meaning of the S. Microsoft explained that S stood for "Store", not "Schools". Or "Soon". Or "Sandbox". So the premium hardware is being used as a billboard to promote the Windows Store. I suspect for almost all buyers of the Surface Laptop that billboard will flash past never to be seen again. That "upgrade" to full-fat Windows Pro will be fairly mandatory for most Reg readers, whether you're buying the Surface Laptop for yourself or through work.

Surely a platform reliant on the Windows Store is doomed to meet the same fate as Windows RT? Perhaps, but perhaps not. For a start, there's a genuine Intel platform underneath, while Windows RT chugged away on ARM, severely limiting the number of apps available. More could come.

And secondly, the Windows Store, while lagging far behind the Chrome Store, isn't as bad as you might think if you haven't looked recently. Or if you've been on Windows 10 mobile, watching the sad trickle of apps out of the Store. Thanks to Microsoft's concessions to developers, specifically the Desktop to UWP Bridge, more Win32 apps are now becoming Store apps. Deal-breakers such as Slack and Evernote have been through the conversion process and are now Windows Store apps. Microsoft showed off Spotify as a UWP yesterday (note that these are Store for Intel PCs only, not ARM-based Windows 10 mobile devices, for now anyway).

So it's conceivable that a UWP Store app workload could get you through a day on a Windows S machine. That's something very hard to imagine on Windows 10 using only UWP apps. As we found using Continuum late last year (we'll update that attempt to use Continuum for real work soon).

If Windows S feels provisional, your intuitions are correct. It is only half the story. Thanks to Qualcomm, Microsoft is building an x86 "Granny Flat" into Windows so ARM will be able to run those Intel-only UWP apps like Evernote, Spotify and Slack pretty well. At that point the game changes again with low-cost, ARM-based laptops and tablets "doing Windows" reasonably well.

Arguably that's what Microsoft was promising over 25 years ago as it began to hype cross-platform NT: Windows everywhere. What a long, strange journey it has been getting to the point where Windows was decoupled from the Intel instruction set – and we're not even there yet. ®

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