The release of Windows 8 may still be months away, but Seton Hall University isn't waiting for general availability of the new operating system in October. It's already using it on tablets and ultrabooks.
As part of its SHUmobile program — a collaboration with Microsoft, AT&T and Nokia — Seton Hall is giving incoming freshman either a Samsung Series 7 tablet running the Windows 8 Release Preview version or a Samsung Series 5 laptop running Windows 7, depending on what area of study the student is pursuing.
All devices will be upgraded to Windows 8 RTM when the OS is generally available this fall.
Seton Hall students will also get a Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone loaded with a customized app that contains student and faculty contact information as well as general campus information.
To complete the initiative, the university is upgrading its campus-wide email, storage, communications and collaboration platform to Microsoft Office 365.
Such offerings are a reboot of Seton Hall's 14-year-old Mobile Computing Program, which provided incoming freshmen with a laptop as part of their tuition and then an upgraded machine in their junior year.
Students Want Tablets: Is Windows 8 the Answer?
While laptops have been the traditional hardware choice for college students, lately, there's been an itch for lighter, more modern hardware, says Stephen Landry, CIO of Seton Hall.
"There has definitely been a growing interest in tablets," Landry says. "In the science department we've been issuing students and faculty the Lenovo X Series machines running Windows 7, a convertible laptop with a touchscreen that swivels and folds down to become a tablet that uses a stylus pen."
But Windows 7 was not designed for touchscreen functionality and although it works well with a pen, Landry says, it is "not a satisfactory" tablet experience.
However, Landry still pushed for a full-bore tablet environment this year. After considering putting tablets off until 2013, Landry warmed to Windows 8, Microsoft's highly anticipated next iteration of Windows, launching in late October. Landry got on board as a Microsoft First Wave customer in April and cut his teeth on Windows 8 through a sometimes frustrating Consumer Preview.
"Windows 8 consumer preview had its problems, from getting the devices to recognize our Seton Hall sh.edu domain to bumpy navigation with the Metro interface," Landry says.
"But Microsoft provided great support. We had a list of what we thought was wrong. And the patches came. That gave me comfort. And 99 percent of our issues were resolved with the Windows 8 Release Preview. It was ultimately enough of a game-changer for us on tablets."
Landry adds that students in orientation took to the Windows 8 Metro UI like "ducks to water." For faculty and staff, however, Windows 8 training will be more aggressive ... and mandatory. "Faculty and staff is where the pain point will be in the transition," he says.
But between writing off Windows 7 and going all in for Windows 8 tablets, Seton Hall first tested out a popular tablet you may have heard of: the iPad.
iPads and Android Tablets: A Nightmare to Manage
Landry and his staff, of course, are well-aware of Apple's ubiquitous iPad tablet and the rise of Google's Android OS. They are also aware of the BYOD (bring your own device) movement at work in many enterprises.
But to give the best possible IT support to their students and faculty, Landry decided that standardization on Windows 8 made the most sense, especially after testing out iPads and Android tablets in student pilot programs, surveys and focus groups.
As expected, students were excited about the iPad form factor and long battery life, but soon enough there were obstacles.
"Students would say, 'This is great, but it's not a replacement for my laptop.' They complained that they needed the full Microsoft Office suite on their tablet to be as productive as they needed to be," Landry says.
Paul Fisher, Seton Hall's associate CIO and director of the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center at Seton Hall, agrees that the full Office experience on a laptop is tough act for a tablet to follow.
"It's hard to hand tablets to students and faculty and not give them the same experience and level of support that they got with the full Office suite," Fisher says.
In addition, Android tablets and iPads are a bear to manage, Landry says. For example, neither provide a blanket warranty that covers support for all devices.
"We wanted to buy 200 iPads and told Apple we wanted one warranty document and Apple said we don't do that because the iPad is a consumer device," Landry says.
"They give you Apple Care support for each iPad based on a serial number. But I don't want our technician to go through a drawer for a warranty code for each iPad to get support. I want a blanket warranty. So that's a big logistical issue when integrating a consumer tablet into an enterprise environment."
Distributing applications to large groups is also a problem on the iPad, Fisher says.
"Rolling out a simple 99 cent app for the whole university is very manual on the iPad and a huge administrative pain. I'm sure that feature on the iPad will mature. But, for now, enterprise distribution on the iPad wasn't ready for us."
Fisher points out that Apple now has volume purchasing for iPads, but their method is still to distribute one code to each student.
"That's fine for a pilot program, but think about handing out activation codes to 5,000 students. It can be a management nightmare."
Windows 8 Security and Management Tools Seal the Deal
In the end, Windows 8 won Landry and team over with its capability to be deployed on tablets in bulk with added management and security features. It will give students and IT the best of both worlds, Landry says.
"The students wanted a real computing experience on a tablet, not a lightweight experience," he says. "We're confident Windows 8 will give them the productivity tools they need. In turn, we can manage the tablets the same way we've been managing our Windows laptops and desktops."
The Windows 8 devices will be joined to Seton Hall's Active Directory domain, which includes secure SSO (single sign-on) to the university's resources and services. Just as he has done with previous Windows machines, Landry will use Active Directory to inventory and manage Windows 8 tablets and ultrabooks, push out patches and anti-virus updates, and do remote wipes if necessary.
As recently as March, Seton Hall had nearly given up on a tablet deployment after deciding that broad adoption of Android and the iPad was not in the cards. But Fisher says he believes that converging onto a Windows platform for tablets is the best solution for today's tech-minded college student.
"It's one device for students to maintain and it transitions well from tablet to laptop to desktop," says Fisher. "When they sign in with single-sign-on they go straight to Outlook email, Office 365 or Sharepoint. When they buy an app for their Windows Phone it's going to work on their tablet and ultrabook, too."
This kind of seamless access to student tools, Fisher says, can often be the difference between academic success and failure.
"The more barriers we break down to get students the tools they need, the more the more likely they are to engage with the school and graduate," he says.
"I'm not saying technology is the be-all-and-end-all, but it is the facilitator."