Sunday 12 June 2016

Whats the future for locally installed Windows apps?

The way Microsoft plans to maintain the Windows 10 desktop OS has implications for managing the type of locally installed applications commonly found in education.

In the past updates were delivered as service packs that bundled a number of changes into one discrete package.  As a consequence students found themselves with laptops running Windows 7 SP3 with security fixes and some key application patches layered on top. The upgrade process was under the control of the IT team and was delivered as a phased deployment that guaranteed periods of stability until the next major release or service pack came along.

One advantage of this phased approach was that it gave the IT team a chance to regression test locally installed apps before making the update generally available, although whether this was an advantage or a massive PITA is debatable. Once you had a stable release it could be deployed across the entire estate sometimes as an entirely new image that remained fairly static until the process was repeated.

This has all changed.

With Windows 10 Microsoft has adopted the service approach whereby updates and pushed out far more frequently and as a consequence they are smaller and more manageable. Releases are expected to be slipstreamed quickly into into the production environment solving both the management overhead and change control issue in a single move.

This process is much closer to the experience enjoyed by mobile device users who see changes regularly pushed to their device closely followed by a corresponding set of updates from the vendor store. In general the applications and OS keep in step, although some developers are better than others at keeping pace.

Except on a school desktop PC or laptop that’s unlikely to happen.

Although Microsoft has moved to “Windows as a service” model the local applications haven't.

Most are still wedded to the major/minor release model that might provide two updates a year at the very most. These will be supplied as a download to be rolled under the control of the local  IT team.  There will be no opportunity to run a regression test because there is no longer a ‘gold’ release to test against. For installed applications there's the possibility they could run into problems as new features are introduced and older interfaces are degraded. Education is notorious for relying on software that is no longer being actively supported by the vendor.

Even if you stick with Windows 7 you're not completely out of the woods because monthly non-security updates are heading your way too.

So where does that leave us.
  • If your school runs an IT team you can invest some time in wrapping the updates back into a bundle to get back to a where you were.
  • You could remove the dependence on the OS by virtualizing your apps using MS RemoteApp or a Remote Desktop solution such as Citrix but this creates its own range of issues and just introduces another layer of complexity and cost.
  • Or you can start investigating using SaaS as replacements for locally installed apps. 
Although not completely isolated from underlying OS they use open standards such as HTML5 and are far less likely to be effected by an slipstreamed update than a seven year old graphics package that relies a 2008 Visual C++ runtime.  Add to this the fact that they carry no maintenance overhead and work cross platform and it seems like an obvious strategy.

But here's the takeaway.

If you make the move towards SaaS what's the value of a Microsoft based OS?  You only need Windows to run Windows programs locally, that's its only selling point over something like a Chromebook.

Take away the local application set and you’re left with an extremely complicated and expensive method to place a browser in front of your users.

The future for apps is SaaS and the mobile webstore model. Start planning for it and make your life easier.

Update: August 2016 
The new WaaS approach incorporates a number of different update models, termed "servicing options" that are described here. The version most suited to education would most likely be LTSB or Long Term Service Branch which sacrifices the number of product updates pushed to devices by providing an image with a reduced application set.

Examples of the apps that Windows 10 Enterprise LTSB does not include are Microsoft Edge, Windows Store Client, Cortana, Outlook Mail, Outlook Calendar, OneNote, Weather, News, Sports, Money, Photos, Camera, Music, and Clock which on the whole is nothing but a good thing.

Microsoft has also announced two new cuts of of the OS “Windows 10 Pro Education” and “Windows 10 Education” designed specifically to meet the needs of lower and upper school (K12) education. Quite how this dovetails with the servicing options plan is a little hazy at the moment.

The only thing that is clear is that Microsoft is making few concessions as it drives relentlessly towards the subscription model.