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Can Windows 8 Play With the Big Boys?

While Windows 8 trails badly in the number of apps it supports, it has two big advantages: Microsoft's productivity tools and easy integration with enterprise systems.

Can Windows 8 Play With the Big Boys

When it comes to mobile, Microsoft clearly wasn't. While Apple and Google were carving up the mobile market with their iOS and Android platforms, Microsoft was nowhere in sight--at least not until last fall when the company released its Windows 8 operating system. "Better late than never" goes the saying, and it does appear that the outlook for Microsoft's mobile efforts is looking up. According to market research firm Strategy Analytics, Microsoft increased its share of the worldwide tablet market from zero last year to 7.4 percent in the first quarter, with 3 million Windows 8 tablets shipping during the quarter.

This story appears in the July 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

In a competitive race where apps serve as jet fuel, though, Microsoft's late takeoff makes the climb that much harder. While Apple's app store boasts around 800,000 apps and Google's 700,000, the Windows Store has only about 50,000 apps to its name. So why would students and faculty choose a Windows 8 tablet over its more established rivals?

Legacy Tools
For starters, a single-minded focus on apps loses sight of what makes Microsoft's mobile offering appealing in the first place: The company brings to the game a suite of productivity tools that most faculty and students have used all their lives. It's an advantage confirmed during iPad and Android pilots conducted at Seton Hall University (NJ) over the past few years. When the school surveyed students after the projects, they said they liked the form factor of the tablets but needed access to Microsoft Office applications to be productive. "We could offer them Documents to Go or other workarounds, but they definitely wanted that access to Office," says Michael Soupios, associate director of the school's Teaching, Learning and Technology Center (TLTC).

This student preference played a part in the school's decision to join Microsoft's First Wave program of early adopters. Along with the University of Washington, Seton Hall was among the first in higher education to deploy Windows 8. In June 2012, the school gave 500 freshmen Samsung Series 7 Slates running Windows 8; then, in September, it gave them to 500 juniors as part of a technology refresh. Extensive surveys asked students about their impressions.

The number of students who reported negative impressions of Windows 8 was fairly small, around 12 percent. "The students liked that it is instant-on like an iPad, instead of having to wait for a desktop PC to boot up," Soupios says. More than 16 percent of freshmen described their experience with the operating system as much better than with Windows 7. More than 37 percent said somewhat better, while about 30 percent felt it was about the same. The numbers for juniors were similar.

Comments from students included:

  • "The new Windows 8 is modern and interactive. However, I prefer to use a laptop instead of a tablet because I dislike using a touchscreen tablet as a substitute for a laptop."
  • "I like the idea of the app live tiles, but the apps themselves are disappointing and not easy to use."
  • "I like the home screen and the accessibility of it. I also like the apps and how accessible e-mail is."

Seton Hall also queried students about their impression of the apps available in the Windows Store. Approximately 25 percent of students were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the Windows 8 apps. "At the time, the store had only something like 50 apps," Soupios recalls. "We knew that was going to be a problem, but it has gotten better, although still nowhere near Android and iTunes."

Paul Fisher Jr., associate CIO and director of TLTC, is under no illusions about the challenge facing Microsoft. The company, he says, "has to up the ante to jump over Google and Apple," and his first impressions are that Microsoft has done a fantastic job technologically.

Spicing Up the Secret Sauce
With Windows 8, Microsoft has taken a cloud-based approach to data. Students can log into their Microsoft account and SkyDrive from any device to access their documents and e-mail. It's an approach not dissimilar to that of Apple's iCloud, and in many ways Microsoft is taking Apple's secret sauce and trying to kick it up a notch: the utility of the cloud, the hipness of the iPad form factor and apps store--but topped with the rich productivity tools that students and faculty know so well.

Microsoft believes it has another competitive advantage because Windows 8 is an operating system that is not restricted to mobile devices. According to Cameron Evans, chief technology officer for Microsoft's US Education group, customers are also interested in desktops with touch capabilities, and many schools are looking to refresh old monitors with touchscreens for use with Windows 8. "You can have a first-class experience with them with mouse and keyboard or touch," he says. "We say let the context of the work dictate how you use it."

It's an approach that Pace University (NY) hopes will work. The school has installed Windows 8 across its computer labs, and additional pilot projects are under way. Eventually, Pace expects to deploy Windows 8 across 10,000 desktops and devices. According to Larry Robcke, manager of client support, decisions about when to deploy technologies such as Windows 8 are student- and faculty-driven. "Faculty started asking us when they could start using this new technology in classrooms and students wanted to see it in the labs," he reports.

Based on Pace's experience, Robcke says Windows 8 is definitely quicker than Windows 7 at startup, which users really like. "We haven't discovered any major issues or hurdles in our testing yet, but we do have a few custom applications developed internally that require some programming work."

Pace's decision to go with Windows 8 may have been driven by faculty and students, but it's a safe bet that at many other institutions the loudest cheering for Windows 8 is coming from the IT department itself--for entirely different reasons.

Better TCO
Simply put, Windows 8 is easier--and cheaper--to integrate into enterprise systems than other mobile operating systems. This was a major factor in Southern Illinois University's decision to issue 2,500 Dell Latitude 10 tablets to students this fall after considering both iPads and Windows 8 tablets. "We compared the two platforms, and no doubt the campus would have been more excited with the iPads," says CIO David Crain. "Yet not only would the Windows 8 devices plug into our enterprise architecture and have better technology specs, such as more RAM, faster processors, et cetera, but it would be less expensive for the university."

By going with Windows 8 tablets instead of iPads, SIU estimates it will save $3 million in total cost of ownership over the four-year contract, not including what a third-party mobile device management (MDM) solution would have cost. "Apple did not offer any kind of deep discount, while Dell allowed us to leverage volume purchasing to give us aggressive pricing," Crain says. "They also offered a better warranty with no deductible. Apple wasn't willing to go as long on the warranty and had a more limited warranty."

Concerns about MDM were also a major consideration at Seton Hall. "We thought about this during our iPad and Android tablet pilots in 2010 and 2011," Fisher recalls. "How would we manage them? That was when we realized that, with our Microsoft network infrastructure, we don't need a third-party MDM solution like MobileIron [to handle Windows 8 tablets]. We can use all the services we already have. That was a real bonus from an IT standpoint--we can manage these devices like we do every other PC on campus. It was the icing on the cake."

But what about the student experience? Have SIU and Seton Hall put the cart before the horse? In the view of SIU, providing users with access to desktop applications they have always used is important to users. During a pilot this spring with 300 students, Crain says, "We had a few network hiccups and problems with Office 2010 not working well in a touch environment." But with Office 2013 being loaded onto all devices this fall, Crain expects this problem will be resolved, and there were no compatibility problems with any university applications.

One other factor influenced SIU's decision to go with Windows 8: The school is a big user of Pearson's MyLab. When the school was comparing tablets, an iPad version of the program didn't exist. A stripped-down version is now available, says Crain, but the full version is available for Windows 8.

Even so, among trend-conscious students an iPad is an iPad. So it's not altogether surprising that SIU has received some pushback from students who feel the decision to go with Windows 8 is more about business efficiency than student preferences. Students have complained about the Microsoft Store, for instance, especially in comparison to iTunes.

But Crain believes that the gap between Apple's and Microsoft's offerings will narrow over time, helping smooth away any student discontent. "I am impressed that the top 50 apps in the iTunes App Store are all in the Windows Store," he says. "There are something like 50,000 apps in the Windows Store now and it is growing."

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