Windows 8 is late to the tablet game. It’s an operating system of contradictions and multiple layers of user input which attempt to straddle the wide chasm of desktop and mobile operating systems. Its competitors already have years of lead time and boast maturing ecosystems resulting in many schools have pushing Windows 8 away. But don’t ignore it, Microsoft’s latest operating system may actually be the saviour of mobile technology in schools.
The Problem With iPad
While schools struggle with how to best fit Apple’s inflexible tablet into their network Windows 8 is sitting on the sideline waiting for someone to let it on to the pitch. The passion and buzz created by iPad, and to a lesser extent Android, has drowned out many of the negative aspects of the device. How do you scale a single user device? How do we fit new software into teaching and learning? Are we forced to change school policies to enable use of new devices?
iPad has been so successful at infiltrating education not because it’s the best and most scalable platform, but because Apple controls the consumer market brilliantly. It’s no coincidence that teachers are at the centre of Apple’s target demographic. Meanwhile the lacklustre entrance into the market of Windows 8 and Microsoft’s confused marketing message — if you watch the ads you would be forgiven for believing that the Microsoft Surface was nothing more than an expensive castanet — has failed to capture the interest of consumers and as a result the benefits of Windows 8 for schools has been ignored.
[pullquote]While the Windows 8 ecosystem itself may be immature the Microsoft infrastructure into which the operating system fits has twenty years of development and experience behind it.[/pullquote]
We should be clear about what Windows 8 is — it’s Windows. That seems obvious, but along with the greying, slightly musty baggage that the Windows name carries it also brings along the management tools and network integration that schools are attempting, and failing, to replicate with iPad.
Features like Group Policy, home folders, centrally managed settings, centrally controlled user accounts, document sync, and open standards technologies should not be discarded simply because the competition has a managed to get hold of the snake charmer’s pipe.
While the Windows 8 ecosystem itself may be immature the Microsoft infrastructure into which the operating system fits has twenty years of development and experience behind it.
What do teachers and students really want from their tablet?
I’ve been trying to narrow down what it is about the iPad that teachers and students really want. It’s very easy to get caught up in the glamour of sexy hardware but what is it that truly makes a difference? Our recent school research project gave a few hints:
- Instant on — the ability to pick up a device and get instantly where they want to be. No boot up times, no log in times.
- Easy accessible web browser — the most used iPad feature is the web browser
- To be mobile — to move around the classroom and not be tied to a desk
It’s all about mobility and accessibility, and Windows 8 has all these things. It is designed to be instant on, Internet Explorer 10 is simple and slick, and the latest Windows 8 tablets are both beautiful and cheap. Not only that but Windows 8 runs familiar applications like SIMS, Office, and has a proper web browser. Yes, I know iPad has Safari, but have you ever tried to edit a Google Doc in the iPad’s browser? In Internet Explorer 10 it just works. Of course, if you choose you can also install the desktop versions of Chrome and Firefox.
This week I got hold of the ASUS Vivotab, a new line of affordable Windows 8 tablets. I wanted to see if a Windows 8 device could work as well, or better, than a trolley of iPads in a classroom, to see if it could fit into our infrastructure while still acting as an accessible mobile device, and also if it could meet the expectations teachers have of iPad.
What I found was pleasantly surprising
Windows 8 fits in to any Microsoft network as easily as configuring a new laptop. Most of the same Group Policy settings, security, printers, home folders, shared drives, and software — it all just transfers over with minimal fuss.
Windows 8 in desktop mode works a lot better than I anticipated. The OS seems to know where touches are intended even when the target is very tiny, but load up an application like Photoshop and it’s clear that the UI wasn’t designed to be used at such high resolutions. While most Windows 7 applications will work with Windows 8, if you’re using the touch screen alone some traditional apps may struggle with the new input method.
The experience of using Windows on a tablet is extremely liberating. Instead of relearning workflows and finding alternate solutions to already solved problems, Windows 8 supports the best of the old while allowing while allowing for the type of safe software exploration that teachers love about the iPad through the Windows 8 App Store.
When I browse the web on Window 8 I’m not constantly thinking, “Can I do that?”, “Is that viewable?”, “Do I need an app to support that?” It all just works in the same way it does on a desktop.
I’ve used Windows 8 touchscreen laptops before and have been left disappointed. The confused mouse, keyboard and touchscreen input mess makes Windows 8 a nightmare for new users. But the pure tablet experience is where Windows 8 sits most comfortably, the user interface just makes sense. The screen swiping, the charms, Internet Explorer 10, even the jarring switch between Start Screen and desktop work better in the tablet form factor.
Look Again at Windows 8 Tablets
Windows 8 resolves many of the security and scalability issues that schools are finding with iPad and Android. The issues of the lack of centrally manageable user accounts, centralised document storage, and close ecosystem of iPad are resolved with Windows 8.
Twelve months ago I wouldn’t have believed it, but for secondary schools I would not be surprised to start to see more interest being taken in Windows 8. The operating system certainly deserves a second look. Network Administrators should be making the case for Windows 8 — nobody else will.
I’m not saying that iPad has no value in schools, that couldn’t be further from the truth, and we should continue to encourage BYOD to expand and devices to be chosen based on individual preference, however, where we want to have centrally held pools of tablet computers it’s hard to argue against Windows 8 tablets.
When Windows 8.1 arrives later this month it will give a boost to the use of Windows 8 in schools. New features such as Miracast as standard and greater Group Policy controls will only strengthen the argument for Windows 8.