The new Windows To Go feature allows you to access your work machine through a USB drive

Days before the launch of Microsoft’s ‘re-imagined’ Window to the now not-so-new world of touch and mobile computing, market research polls and analysts reflected a sort of ambivalence to the product. On the enterprise side too, early polls indicated that customers were in no hurry to make a switch, especially given the current economic climate where IT spending is predictably not as much of a priority as it used to be.

Microsoft itself — clearly enamoured by its new-found touch-friendliness, elegant apps arranged on neat tile stacks and slick updates — is selling itself hard to the consumer. It has provided a modern and consistent environment, both for users and developers, across a range of devices that include both newer interfaces like touch screens, but also the good old keyboard-and-mouse. However, it’s more interesting, and perhaps less reported, offering lies in the world of the enterprise.

For starters, there’s Windows To Go.

While the Microsoft execs doing the big launches (the Redmond-based major is currently on a 33 city tour of India) are harping on the benefits of a touch-friendly user interface in the enterprise, Windows To Go is a new offering that’s making some ripples among enterprise customers. In simple terms, this is a feature on Windows 8 that allows you to put your whole Windows 8 environment on to a portable USB-based storage device. This is bootable on any computer that runs on the Windows operating system (version 7 and 8).

But what does this mean?

This means that if you are a company with say a thousand employees, you can give them each a Windows To Go USB drive that allows them to access their work machines, desktop environment and all, from their own devices. What’s interesting is that the requirements and, therefore, the costs involved, are rather basic: a 32 GB USB 3.0 drive. The USB has to be 3.0 in order to be able to facilitate greater data transfer speeds, in line with Windows 8 protocol.

The underlying tech is simple: it’s a bootable USB, which means you’re running your operating system from your USB stick. This isn’t new by itself. What makes this a “game changer” in the enterprise is that Microsoft has managed to provide the level of encryption and security that will allow companies to have the confidence to hand out complete access to their office environments on a stick to every employee, while maintaining corporate standards on security and computing standards. The encryption used here is ‘BitLocker To Go’, Microsoft’s encryption that was available on Windows 7.

Currently, these devices are manufactured in India only by USB manufacturers Kingston and SuperTalent, and cost around Rs. 4,000- 5,000 in the market. This is likely to come down, once USB makers see it as an opportunity, and it catches on.

Says Amrish Goyal, director, Windows Business Group, Microsoft India: “Today, these sticks are pre-ordered. But enterprise costumers are excited, and in six months, we expect this to be totally prevalent in the Indian market. The actual incremental cost of matching our data transfer protocol is not a whole lot; it’s just that people haven’t started manufacturing it.”

The innovation, he adds, is in being able to provide that kind of security that enterprises need because, at the end of the day, this stick is actually a gateway to all the information the company has.

The benefits are pretty obvious.

With BYOD (bring your own device) an HR buzz among corporate firms, this simple USB stick allows employees to bring their own hardware, boot an image of the company operating system from the USB and log on to the network. Compared to desktop virtualisation, the costs are lesser as there’s lesser infrastructure deployment.

Sanket Akerkar, managing director, Microsoft India, says Windows To Go is one of the features that makes Windows 8 radically different from what is being offered in the enterprise. Though there’s a lot of talk on desktop virtualisation, Mr. Akerkar points out that analysts like International Data Corporation and Gartner say this has only moved computing power from the desktop to the server. “It has not changed anything; it hasn’t solved any massive problem. I think, Windows To Go solves this problem … it doesn’t move the problem, it solves it,” he says.

Mr. Akerkar insists that this is a “game changer” because it truly enables the BYOD concept. For instance, he refers to an interaction he had with a business that recruits agents. This particular company, he explains, has some 200,000 agents and the management wanted to buy them all tablet PCs. “They were more than excited to know that all they had to do was give them USB sticks. And the beautiful part is that you get all this security!”

This kind of scenario, he says, is “really refining a lot more front office innovation, rather than back office innovation in the enterprise”. “All the stuff in the back office that they’re talking about, the general ledgers and the inventories, that’s 20 years old; it’s old school. The cool stuff now is to look for productivity; how do I connect to my costumers, vendors or partners, and how do I bring them in … the real cutting edge stuff today is how do I reach out and bring more people to my enterprise.”

So is Windows To Go the only incentive for corporations to upgrade to Windows 8? There’s a lot more, insists Mr. Akerkar. What’s truly unique is that this product works for a whole range of devices, he says. “Here’s an operating system that can run from devices that are 7 inches to 80 inches, and deliver you a consistent experience, a consistent development platform, and be hooked to the enterprise, and be hooked up to all the cloud services and give you a wonderful touch and keyboard experience.”

“There’s nothing else out there in the market, yet,” Mr. Akerkar insists.