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Microsoft's Windows 8: Is it smart to make an enterprise PC look like a smart phone?

Microsoft's Windows 8: Is it smart to make an enterprise PC look like a smart phone? Anthony Harrington

In October 2012 Microsoft launched its much heralded next generation operating system, Windows 8. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the dire falling off in PC sales and the boom in tablets and smart phones, it seems that Microsoft has decided that there is much wisdom in the old adage which says: if you can't beat them, join them. For what the new OS does is upend a long and steady evolution of Windows operating systems going back to Windows 95. Instead, it replaces them, at a stroke, with a smart phone or tablet style "tiled" approach that bears little resemblance to the Windows so many business users know like the back of their hands. Gone is the traditional MS Start Button in the bottom left corner, and in the early stages, many newbies to Windows 8 are guaranteed an uncomfortable time as they try to figure out how to access applications without their familiar Start Menu.

However, Microsoft is counting on the fact that as far as consumers and individual business users are concerned, the familiarity of the tiled approach on their smart phones will make them love the new OS and provide them with a comfortable feeling of familiarity. Where though, does this leave the enterprise? Heads of IT departments may well love the tiled graphical user interface on their iPhones or Android phones, but they expect to see all the usual Windows icons and metaphors on the desktop. It's become part of their IT DNA.  Until now Microsoft has worked extremely hard to win enterprises round to its way of thinking and the Windows OS has been a key part of its approach by providing easy access to enterprise applications. Microsoft makes a boatload of money out of big business buying Microsoft licenses and renewing them each year. So what is the business response to Windows 8? So far, the answer is simple. Business appears to be distinctly underwhelmed by the new OS and in particular by the "tiled" approach.

The reason for this is pretty straightforward and it would be astonishing if Microsoft really hadn't anticipated this. Business wants users to have easy access to applications. It doesn't care about the OS other than that it should be secure and provide easy access. "Easy" here is defined in large part as "doing what we've always done". Until Windows 8 came along and overturned the apple cart, having got enterprises in general accustomed to the Windows graphical user interface metaphors, Microsoft has always been careful to maintain a similar "look and feel" to subsequent generations of Windows, even as it tweaked the way things were done. Windows 8 throws all that out the window and confronts business with a radically different approach. It is no surprise to find that this has chilled enterprise sales.

A new report by Forrester, basically a survey of corporate buyers of IT, found that Windows 8 is lagging substantially behind other Windows launches at a comparable stage in their life cycle. In 2009, when Microsoft rolled out Windows 7 as a replacement for Vista, half of the corporates surveyed said they expected to switch to the new OS. For Windows 8 that number is down to just 25% and only 5% said that they planned to update to Windows 8 within the next 12 months.

There is a carrot for corporates in the new OS, in that it is said to be very much more secure than Windows 7 - though the proof of that has yet to come. However, the disincentive provided by the break in continuity with past Windows metaphors is going to be a hurdle for Microsoft to get over. One theory is that what Microsoft is relying on is the power of BYOD, which stands for "bring your own device". If it can win the tablet and smart phone wars, or even get itself shoulder to shoulder with Apple, then having the same look and feel on the PC as users know and love on their tablets and smart phones, may well turn out to be a winner - despite the frustration that central IT departments may feel.

However, if this is indeed the strategy, one has to wonder why Microsoft let the man who spearheaded Windows 8, Steven Sinofsky, leave the company immediately after delivering Windows 8 "by his own personal and private choice". You don't fire the designer if you like the product and you make pretty damn sure that they don't walk of their own volition just as you are launching the product to the world.

Anyway, what is done is done and Microsoft and the rest of us are just going to have to wait and see if Windows 8 turns into a winner, like its predecessor, Windows 7, or is more like Vista, an OS that Microsoft would rather forget.

Further reading on IT

Tags: enterprise systems , Graphical User Interface , GUI , Microsoft , Vista , Windows 7 , Windows 8
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