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Commentary Laptops

Windows 10 S locks default to Edge and Bing. What's Microsoft teaching us?

Commentary: Educators -- and the parents who pay them -- need to think twice before signing up for laptops that run Microsoft's locked-down operating system.

Now Playing: Watch this: Windows 10 S defaults to Microsoft Edge browser
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Correction, May 4, 2017: It's free for schools to upgrade from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro.

May 2, Microsoft held an event to launch a new education-focused version of its Windows 10 operating system that can run on ultracheap laptops. Windows 10 S is a locked-down version of Windows 10 Pro: Microsoft made it crystal-clear that you can only install apps from the Windows app store on Win 10 S systems, and that if you want to breach its walled garden you can upgrade to Windows 10 Pro.

But the company also went out of its way to say that you could use third-party web browsers (like Chrome and Firefox), but that you'd get a better experience with its own Edge browser. In light of The Verge's discovery -- simply by looking at the Windows 10 S FAQ -- that you can't change the default from Edge, or even change the default search engine from Bing, that now strikes me as a seriously disingenuous tactic.

From the FAQ:

Microsoft Edge is the default web browser on Microsoft 10 S. You are able to download another browser that might be available from the Windows Store, but Microsoft Edge will remain the default if, for example, you open an .htm file. Additionally, the default search provider in Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer cannot be changed.

Also note that elsewhere in the FAQ it clarifies on search: "Microsoft Edge/Internet Explorer search default: Bing and designated regional search providers." (Emphasis mine.)

Teach your children well

It's never too early to start teaching anticompetitive and opportunistic tactics, I guess. Microsoft might say it's for security, but then why allow you to download and use anything from the app store? It might say it's to control how students can access the Internet and what they can access, but then why not put the selection of the defaults in the hands of the administrators? It might say it's to protect student privacy, but Edge doesn't have any particular privacy advantage.

Microsoft's actual reason? "We believe Microsoft Edge and Bing provide the best and most secure experience on Windows 10 S," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement. "Customers are in control of their Windows experience and users who prefer to install apps from outside the Windows Store and modify default settings can choose Windows 10 Pro instead."

If the app store doesn't have a program you're looking for, it suggests available alternatives. If Bing never has the answers you're looking for, will it suggest alternative search engines? Nope.

Now just think of all that yummy, profitable data Microsoft can collect and monetize from your children now that attempts to prevent saving and selling it have been rolled back by the US government. Because even if you browse using InPrivate in Edge, Microsoft still knows where you've been and what you've looked at; it's just your teachers and classmates who won't see where you've been. The combination of Edge and Bing searches will allow them to deanonymize to a greater degree. And whole schools of aggregated data? Yowza. The company might protest that it's not collecting and sharing, but if you trust that will never happen, well, happy ad targeting to you.

(Now would probably be the time to alert you to my I-don't-trust-anyone-online bias.)

Of course, upgrading to Windows 10 Pro can bypass that restriction. But the upgrade has to be approved and done by the school. If there's one thing system administrators hate with a passion it's variety in system configurations, so it would likely be a most-or-nothing conversion. You could go in and change the home page to another search engine -- at least I think you can -- but that would have to be done system by system.

You can use other browsers and search engines, but inertia is a huge force when it comes to browser and search engine use. All of my nontechnical friends would be using Safari and IE/Edge if I hadn't shown them the light and changed their defaults. Whatever opens by default wins.

So if you can't change the default, we're teaching them that a browser isn't a real choice, something that Microsoft already got slammed on legally. (That "designated regional search providers" can also function as a legal preemption, since Europe would probably be the first to jump on the litigation bandwagon. Though now I wonder if US schools could license the UK version if they'd be able to change the default from Bing.)

Or worse, they'll think the school chose it, and chose it because it's better. We're teaching them that it's OK to leave software on the defaults, which is really, really not true. That corporate interests take precedence over theirs. I'm hoping that kids who have a personal laptop and use better options will push back.

But worse, we're teaching them that search engines aren't a real choice, either. And being herded to a search engine you have no choice in? That's a form of censorship. Search engine usefulness rises and falls over time -- these days it feels to me like Google is more focused on helping you shop than figuring out how to work around the limitations in its own products -- so fixing a default doesn't make sense over time.

If I were a school administrator, I'd think twice about agreeing to this. It doesn't just lock out student choice, it locks out administrator choice. I can't find a copy of Windows 10 S' terms of use, and I'm starting to wonder what other ways Microsoft locks schools in that aren't mentioned in the FAQ.

But overall I hope that the brilliant kids Microsoft showed in the announcement -- the ones who are programming robots and building structures with Code Builder for Minecraft -- figure how to get around these constraints and to protest them. Those are important real-world skills, too.