Microsoft's release of the Windows 8 operating system signals a shift in both the economics and the mobile mindset for schools.
Following on the heels of Apple's iPad Mini and Google's Nexus 7 announcements, Windows 8 aims to take the device out of the equation and change the conversation about apps, said Cameron Evans, chief technology officer for education at Microsoft. For example, Windows 8 allows multiple people to have personal accounts on one device, whereas Apple requires one person to be registered to an iPad.
The operating system is personal, cloud-based and mobile.
"We're connected to the cloud because we're constantly mobile, and in our worldview, it's not the device that's mobile, it's you — it's the student, it's the teacher," Evans said. "We need to figure out ways to get content to them that's relevant to their needs regardless of what device they're using and how they want to connect to the Internet."
Unlike Apple, which sets the price of its devices, Windows 8 runs on devices and processors from multiple companies. This creates a competitive marketplace where schools can find a price point and features that work for them.
But not all colleges can afford new devices with Windows 8. So they have two options. They can run Windows 8 on their old hardware and use a mouse. Schools and universities that already have a licensing agreement with Microsoft for Windows can upgrade at no charge.
Or they can order Windows To Go. For less than $100, students and educators carry the full version of Windows 8 wherever they go on a USB drive. This is especially important for urban school districts where new tablets might not make it home with their students due to theft.
"This takes the device out of the conversation and really focuses on how do we want to create a learning environment for educators and students to really facilitate what they want to do," Evans said.
Students plug their jump drive into a computer on campus or at home that uses an x86, Intel or AMD processor. Then they have a personal session of Windows that allows them to run modern apps without tampering with university system policies. It's not a virtual machine, Evans emphasized.
Computer viruses won't get onto the USB key because it only uses the keyboard for an input, the display for visuals and the CPU to compute. The hard drive is the USB key.
Windows 8 allows users to log on with a picture and gestures that mean something to them. In Microsoft's research, these picture passwords are 40 times more secure than typing in a password with letters, numbers and symbols. Additionally, these passwords are more developmentally appropriate and easier to remember for younger schoolchildren.
"It's completely about me, not about the cloud, not about the device, but about my stuff, my people and the things that I care about," Evans said.
While Windows 8 has native apps, Microsoft focused on creating a good Web experience rather than just giving people apps, Evans said. Instead of asking where the apps are, the company asked: Why do we have apps?
Apps were created because smartphones could not render the full Web. Without real computing power, developers built native apps to run on the processing power that phones have. That way, users wouldn't feel like they were getting a watered-down Web experience, even though they were.
This resulted in Apple and Google combining to have more than 700,000 apps in their marketplaces.
"In classrooms, students don't need to be distracted with trying to figure out what the app is," Evans said. "They need to figure out how they're going to share and collaborate the things they want from the apps and the content they want."
Windows 8 users can search across native and Web apps to find content they're looking at.
A major knock on tablets has been that users can't have two windows open at the same time and work on both. Microsoft thinks it solved that problem.
Students can pull up a full-screen lecture from a Stanford professor, for example, and snap it over to the side in a vertical module. Then they can open Word next to the module and start working. This eliminates the "glass of pain," as Evans called it.
By changing the economics of Windows and making the experience personal, Microsoft hopes to woo education customers away from a world filled with apps.
For more information on how a Windows 8 pilot has gone, check out our story on Seton Hall University's trial run this fall.