Microsoft yesterday unveiled new devices and cloud-based services aimed at what it says is an underserved global market: the estimated 2 billion "firstline workers" who deal with customers or patients as part of their daily job routines. The announcements came out of the Microsoft Ignite developer conference in Orlando, which runs from Sept. 25-29.

Powered by Windows 10 S, a light-weight version of the Windows 10 operating system launched by Microsoft in May, the firstline-focused lineup of four new ultra-slim laptops from different manufacturers will be priced at $349 and under, and are set to hit the market later this year.

In addition to the laptops, Microsoft is also targeting firstline workers with a new enterprise plan called Microsoft 365 F1. Combining the cloud-based features currently offered by Windows 10, Office 365, and Enterprise Mobility + Security, the new plan is designed to maximize worker impact, help with on-the-job training, and enable easier communication and collaboration, Microsoft said.

'Appetite for Tech-Led Reform'

According to a survey commissioned by Microsoft Australia and release today, a majority of the 1,390 firstline workers questioned agreed that technology, automation, and digital transformation will help them perform better in the future. However, only 21 percent said they were currently involved in the digital transformation efforts of their workplaces, while another 33 percent said they weren't but would like to be.

"While there's clear appetite for technology-led reform across all employee categories, the survey reveals that firstline workers -- the very people who engage with customers directly -- feel they are largely underused in many digital transformation projects," Microsoft said in a statement about the survey.

"As rote work is increasingly performed by machines, human interaction and knowledge-based expertise will become more important to firstline workers," Ian Heard, Microsoft Australia's general manager for digital workplace & collaboration, added in a statement.

The new Windows 10 S devices announced yesterday are designed to help with such tasks by enabling quick startup, easy management, security, and work-from-anywhere capabilities, Microsoft said. The machines include the $275, 14-inch HP Stream 14 Pro; the $299, 14-inch Acer Aspire 1; the $349, 13-inch Acer Swift 1; and the $349, 14-inch Lenovo V330.

'Significant Next Step' for Digital Transformation

All powered by Windows 10 S, the new laptops "minimize total cost of ownership" for firstline workers, according to Bernardo Caldas, general manager for commercial marketing in Windows.

"[W]e see a significant opportunity to bring technology to all workers, especially those on the front line," Caldas wrote in a blog post. "A critical part of empowering this workforce is providing custom technology experiences and streamlined, secure devices that help them get their work done and build skills."

In addition to being quick to start up, the new Windows 10 S laptops are fully integrated with Microsoft's OneDrive document storage service and support hosted virtual machines for remote desktop and app-based work, Caldas said. They're also designed to prevent ransomware and other common cyberattacks, and enable cloud-based identity management, administration, and updating.

Caldas added that Microsoft plans a future update that will also allow businesses using those devices to deploy other Windows 10 Enterprise capabilities such as Credential Guard and Application Guard.

Meanwhile, the new Microsoft 365 F1 plan "represents a significant next step towards our vision of involving the Firstline Workforce in digital transformation by empowering every worker with technology," Bryan Goode, general manager for Office 365, said in a separate blog post.

Microsoft 365 F1 includes Office Online; Outlook for email; SharePoint, Yammer, and Groups for collaboration; 2 GB of cloud-based storage; Microsoft StaffHub, PowerApps, and Flow for task and schedule management; Microsoft Intune and other services for device and app management; and additional Microsoft services and software for content storage, threat protection, information protection, and identity and access management.