Today, Microsoft's Terry Myerson announced the new strategy for Windows in the classroom. Windows 10 — which is now Windows-as-a-service, with periodic updates delivered from the cloud — will see a big feature update this summer with the Windows Anniversary Update, announced a few weeks ago at the BUILD developer conference. Now we're learning about the education-specific features that will take on Chromebooks.

It's no secret that Google's Chromebooks have taken the education market by storm; they now constitute more than half of shipments of new devices sold to U.S. schools. Some schools are even re-imaging old Windows PCs into Chromebooks. As a result, both Apple and Microsoft have seen their positions in the educational market slide south over the past four years.

Why does this matter? Well, for the obvious device sales implications, of course. But it's part of a longer-term customer relationship issue, too: If young people grow up not knowing Windows, will they ever care about the platform? Tomorrow's Windows customers could be shaped in today's classroom… or tomorrow's Chromebook customers could be.

For schools, Windows Anniversary Update will address key issues in education:

  • PC imaging and management. One of the key benefits Chromebooks offer is simplified management. When Forrester interviewed schools, we found that their I&O pros spent large chunks of their summers imaging Windows PCs. Windows Anniversary Update will include tools to help make this easier, thereby lowering the staff costs. An updated Windows Imaging and Configuration Designer tool promises to allow technology managers to image PCs in bulk, set up for sharing. (This feature is important because while Suzy might use the PC in 1st period, Tyrone might use it in 2nd period). And a simple "Set Up Schools PC" app for teachers will allow simple deployment in three steps. 
  • Secure testing applications. To compete with the simplicity of Chromebooks' testing environment, Windows 10 will now offer a browser-based, locked-down environment for secure test administration. The "Take A Test" app will work in concert with a teacher's preferred assessment website to allow easy analysis. The user experience will matter here — if teachers find genuine value in the app, they'll be inclined to prefer Windows. (Teachers are only part of the decision making process, but their preference as influencers matters).
  • Windows Store for education. Microsoft will also curate educational content through its Windows Store, making it easier for teachers to discovery and deploy applications across various subjects while also offering hundreds of thousands of books. Two factors matter here: first, the availability of Universal Apps that offer better computing experiences than what users of Chromebooks can get through the web; it's incumbent upon developers to delivery here. Second, pricing must be simple, low, and easy to understand.
  • New Windows features. Finally, Microsoft is positioning Windows Ink — which will allow students to create sticky notes, to markup and edit copy, and to whiteboard — as an educational differentiator. Perhaps more promising is Cortana, which CEO Satya Nadella highlighted at BUILD as the driver of a new way of computing that involves intelligence, machine learning, and integrated conversations with bots. The new tools in the Cortana Intelligence Suite lend themselves to developers coming up with smart new AI-like educational software.

Forrester's initial take — without having seen the full set of tools in action or having interviewed any customers using it — is that it's a promising start to climbing up a steep hill. We believe that:

  • Management simplification is a critical, table-stakes move. The proof is in the pudding here: Can Microsoft really be as easy to manage as Chromebooks? I&O pros will be the judge of that. Certainly these tools will represent an improvement, but the question will be to total cost of ownership counting labor time.
  • Developers are key to realizing this vision. Microsoft's efforts to woo back developers has seen strong gains in the past few years, and continues even further with the Xamarin acquisition. But a lot of this vision — the value of the Windows Store (and Windows Apps vs. web content), the value of Windows Ink and Cortana — will all be decided by what developers do with it.
  • Hardware differentiation will be a key selling point. If Microsoft can execute on this vision, the company will still have a key selling point: a far wider range of device form factors and user interfaces for students. It's desktops, laptops, and tablets, hybrids, and convertibles, of course, but also more choices for kids who have different learning styles (pen, touch, voice, keyboard, assistive technologies). Microsoft and its OEM partners must get the message out about the value of these features.

While it sounds like a good start, I&O pros at schools will be looking for real-life ease of use and a full view of the total cost of ownership before they decide that Windows is once again a strong competitor to Chromebooks.

Contributions to this blog post from: Andrew Hewitt and Christopher Voce.

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J. P. Gownder is a vice president and principal analyst serving Infrastructure & Operations Professionals. He covers innovation in the context of disruptive devices — from PCs to mobile devices, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), digital signage, and robots. Onalytica named him one of the five most important people in the world in the area of wearable computing for 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @jgownder.