by Rob Enderle

Windows To Go: The Forgotten Version of Windows 8

News Analysis
Jul 19, 20135 mins
Computers and PeripheralsData and Information SecurityMicrosoft Office

The ability to carry a Windows 8 image on a USB stick, plug it into any Windows 8 PC and separate corporate and personal data should appeal to anyone who frequently travels or simply hates lugging a laptop around. But Windows to Go isn't catching on. Will Windows 8.1 change that?

One of the most fascinating things about Windows 8 is what we don’t talk about. One of the lead features of the product at launch was called Windows To Go, a feature that IT departments requested from Microsoft so they could create a Windows 8 image, put it on a special USB stick and distribute it to folks who wanted to bring their own PC to the office.

Such an image is fully managed, separate from the employee’s personal image on their PC and, should the employee leave the company, can be wiped or returned to the firm without any impact to the employee’s personal stuff. Traveling employees can just bring the USB stick and use any compliant Windows PC to get to all their local and approved network resources. IT doesn’t even need to distribute custom images—just provision the USB stick like you would a PC using management tools the first time the employee uses it and logs in.

Related: How to Secure USB Drives and Other Portable Storage Devices

Windows 8 Logo

I figured IT would grab this option as the default and use it to avoid most of the pain of the bring your own device (BYOD) trend. But here we are, months after launch, and the most common response about Windows To Go, even when I ask OEMs: “What’s that?”

What gives?

Windows To Go: Think Different

The obvious first problem is that not many people know about this feature. Why? This is a very different way of running Windows. People tend not to like new, different technology. Once we’re comfortable doing something a certain way, we tend to stay with that way of doing things. Running Windows off a USB key is certainly different. You may not think it works, but I’ve been using it for several days, and it works well.

However, there are also some unique hoops that IT may not want to jump through. The biggest is that you can’t use a trusted platform module (TPM). The TPM is built into the hardware and tied to the hard drive. Given that you won’t even have a TPM on most consumer PCs, this exposure is really no worse than if you put a company image on an employee’s PC, but it does limit use for, say, traveling employees who require the use of a TPM.

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More: Enterprise Version of Windows 8 Focuses on Security

In addition, connections to the PC hard drives are supposedly disabled. This is meant to assure that data won’t migrate from the secure USB key to the employee’s PC, but it also means you’re limited to the capacity of the key, which often isn’t much. (That said, I had no issues accessing the local drive, so this now appears to be an option.)

Most of the Windows 8 recovery tools don’t work, either. If someone fries the key, you’ll need to send a new one—and make sure his company files are backed up and current. (This is a normal policy in most mature firms, but it still makes some folks nervous. If a key is connected to Office 365, then this shouldn’t be an issue, as SkyDrive-enabled files and Office settings should be in the cloud.

Finally, the Windows 8 App Store may be disabled, as it’s tied to hardware and Windows To Go keys are typically meant to move between PCs. I expect Microsoft to remove this limitation, just as it turned off the five-PC limit for app store access. You can remove the limit yourself if the USB key is only used on one PC, which I think would be common in a typical BYOD scenario.

Windows 8.1 Should Make Windows To Go More Compelling

This all gets more interesting with Windows 8.1, which pushes the entire Windows image into the cloud and allowing a user to move from system to system nearly seamlessly. Even Windows 8 apps move when they do.

Assuming the app store isn’t disabled, this could make a Windows To Go key, with the one exception of a TPM, as good as or better than a native image on a PC. Hardware designed for the use of this key might make it more interesting, too, so you could simply slide the key into the hardware and leave it there until you need to remove it. This would be handy for a laptop, and especially a tablet, where an external key could become annoying while in use or while removing the device from a case, backpack or purse.

We’ll see what happens. I think Windows To Go is an interesting alternative to traditional enterprise Windows deployments—and I wonder what it will take for more folks to use it.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

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