Foley on Microsoft

Windows 10 S: Why It's More (and Less) than You Think

Early assessments of the lightweight OS have been dismissive, but Windows 10 S hints at a significant shift in Microsoft's development approach to Windows.

Since Microsoft unveiled Windows 10 S -- its secure, Microsoft Store-focused "soul" of Windows 10 -- its existence has puzzled and infuriated many.

Reviewers largely panned Windows 10 S when it shipped by default on Microsoft's Surface Laptop. And when it came to light that Windows 10 S would be the default OS on the first Windows on ARM "Always Connected" PCs coming this year, the howls of indignation grew louder.

Windows 10 S is supposedly less prone to malware and attacks, better for battery life, and unlikely to succumb to the dreaded "Windows rot" that drags down Windows' performance over time. So what's not to love?

Windows 10 S only runs Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps. And there aren't all that many of these -- especially when it comes to useful business-focused ones -- in the Store.

Here's what many don't understand: Windows 10 S isn't really a new flavor of Windows, even though that's how Microsoft originally pitched it. It is not Version 2.0 of the ill-fated Windows RT operating system that debuted on the original Surface RT devices. Windows 10 S is a "mode" which Microsoft is rolling out across the various flavors of Windows.

Microsoft hasn't gone out of its way to publicize this, but the real name of Windows 10 S is/was "Windows 10 Pro in S mode." There's also a product called Windows 10 Enterprise S mode -- the existence of which Microsoft revealed at Ignite in September last year. From the passing mention in a blog post about new Windows 10 S devices from that conference:

"In a future update, organizations will be able to deploy Windows 10 Enterprise capabilities such as Credential Guard, Application Guard and benefit from centralized management of the Store, Cortana and other features on Windows 10 S devices with a Microsoft 365 subscription. With the new Windows 10 Enterprise in S mode, customers will be able to experience Windows 10 Enterprise with all the benefits of Windows 10 S -- streamlined for security and low total cost of ownership."

I'm thinking there also is likely a Windows 10 IoT in S mode product out there somewhere, given another fleeting reference from Microsoft last year. During the company's Inspire partner conference, officials told attendees that Windows 10 S is well-suited for experiences like mobile computing work, frontline user work, plus embedded usage in kiosks and signs. (I believe the mention of kiosks and signs implies Windows 10 IoT.)

Microsoft officials aren't yet ready to explain more about Windows 10 S' evolving positioning. When I asked in late January, a spokesperson sent me the following:

"Insiders running Windows 10 S may have noticed that after upgrading to the latest builds, their PC appears to be running 'Windows 10 Pro In S Mode.' This change is by design and these PCs will continue to function as Windows 10 S PCs and will continue to be able to take Insider Preview builds as part of testing RS4 [Redstone 4]. We'll have more to share as we get closer to the next Windows 10 release."

(The next Windows 10 Release, a.k.a. Redstone 4, is expected around March or April of 2018.)

If Windows 10 S isn't the "modern" version of Windows 10 that Microsoft is expected to make the centerpiece of its Windows lineup in the future, and is more of a placeholder for such a variant, what's coming next?

Details are thin at the moment, but the Windows team is involved in a soup-to-nuts overhaul of the Windows platform. Going far beyond the OneCore work already done for Windows 10, the team is working on a rewrite of the Windows Core via a new Windows Core OS layer, along with related work to redo the Windows Shell to remove legacy/Win32 dependencies. Microsoft is going so far as to try to rework the Windows Desktop Shell so that it will work on this new UWP-centric core with its "Project Polaris" effort. If Microsoft can pull this all together, Windows Core OS + Polaris may be the real "modern" Windows that will be shipping on new PCs in the not-so-distant future.

Microsoft definitely needs a sleeker, safer and less clunky OS if it intends to stay relevant in the computing platforms of the future. Even though Microsoft has said Windows 10 is likely the "last" version of Windows, I feel like its next-generation Windows work deserves a new name of its own. Windows 11, anyone? Or maybe Windows OS X?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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