Windows 8, Microsoft's attempt to unify under a single platform all end user computing devices--desktop, laptop, ultrabook, tablet, smartphone--arrives at a moment when the company badly needs a foothold in the most dynamic segment of that market: mobile. It'll be a pretty grand trick if Redmond can pull that off, but I'm not betting against it.
After two years of getting bloodied by Apple and Google, Microsoft now seems positioned for a turnaround success story. Windows 8 is a big, bold, disruptive move, the kind that just might persuade CIOs to rethink a suddenly fractured end user support strategy. Not since Windows 95, which solidified Microsoft's hold on the desktop computer, has there been a more significant operating system launch from the software giant (and yes, software is still its focus, Xbox consoles and Surface tablets notwithstanding).
Windows is entrenched in enterprises and on home computers to an extent Google and Apple can only dream about. There are 1.3 billion Windows users worldwide, according to Microsoft, thanks mostly to the "reverse BYOD" (bring your office to your home) trend prevalent during the past decade.
We see IT anticipation for Win 8 hovering well above the lukewarm response given to most Microsoft operating systems. Early testing has been promising. And even the most vitriolic Microsoft bashers seem to be giving it some respect. Why? There's a lot to be said for a cohesive UI--if it's intuitive and people want to use it. Those are big ifs, and the million-dollar question is whether Microsoft can deliver a good, consistent Windows experience.
End User Wild Card
CIOs know that confusion increases IT support costs. As Kurt Marko points out in one of our three Windows 8 Survival Guide reports, many respondents to our latest InformationWeek Windows 8 Survey are lukewarm on the Metro (now Modern UI) interface, with its busy, scrolling screens of tiles representing apps and data. Some think that, while it's well-suited to touch-friendly devices, Metro will leave PC users cold.
But all fancy new furniture takes some getting used to. Microsoft is betting that touch and a more app-centric (rather than file- and folder-centric) approach will soon become the norm. Or more to the point, that a uniform user experience across all devices will, in time, reduce support costs enough to offset an initial burst of grousing and help desk calls. As people become adept at picking up the right device for the circumstance (travel, in a meeting, banging out a report, at the kid's soccer game), the notion of a single user experience becomes far more appealing. Indeed, 73% of the respondents to our survey say a unified end user interface is a positive thing.
The bad news for Microsoft? Fifty-five percent say they'll "wait and see" whether Windows 8 can deliver that unified experience.
In fact, a deeper dive into the data shows that few plan to deploy Windows 8 immediately on any kind of a wide scale. Despite a lot of media coverage, 64% of those taking a pass on Windows 8 say they plan to stick with Windows 7 for as long as possible--that's up 14 points from when we asked the same question last year at this time. Ten of those points come from people who've finally given up on XP, but undoubtedly, the fact that Windows 7 has proved stable adds to that intransigence. When asked about exact timelines for desktops and laptops, 27% of respondents planning to upgrade say they have none--the No. 1 answer. It's pretty clear, then, that Windows 8 will simply trickle out over the next two years, or more.
Microsoft, of course, will do everything it can to turn that trickle into a steady stream. While it's certainly in no danger of losing its desktop hegemony (survey respondents indicate 88% of their OS deployments will still be Windows in 2014), Redmond needs new revenue sources--and even 88% share of a shrinking market doesn't spell good Wall Street karma.
Here are five reasons Windows 8 could become a huge success.
1 The bring-your-own-device trend has made it imperative to create an end user computing plan that encompasses multiple devices. That has meant adding support for iOS and Android, along with BlackBerry, not to mention the conventional desktop mix of Windows versions with a sprinkling of Mac OS and possibly Linux and thin clients.
If IT can reduce that burden by steering users down a unified Windows 8 path, they will. Note also that during the Windows Phone 8 launch, Microsoft said administrators will be able to manage the smartphone OS with the same tools they use to manage PCs. That's significant.
2 While there are clearly underlying differences among Windows 8, Windows 8 RT, and Windows Phone 8 from an application perspective, Microsoft has worked to make life easier for its developer community. No, x86 apps won't work on ARM devices--but for fairly obvious performance optimization reasons. However, when Microsoft rolled out Windows Phone 8, it also announced a new kernel that fits into what it calls the "shared Windows core," so that essential code is common across Windows 8 types, as is a shared set of APIs. Developers will have an easier time, but so will hardware ecosystem partners that want to create a shared set of drivers across platforms.
Microsoft also says that it will support native C and C++ code, which will make it easier to port to Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 Android and iOS apps, as well as those nagging legacy applications. It will also make it easier for developers to use native open source libraries.
3 Microsoft's enterprise experience shines through with Win 8, especially with enhanced security and on the application side. As Mike Davis discusses in our security report, Windows 8 adds enhanced exploit mitigation, stronger sandboxing, and password management and encryption, just for starters. In other words, Microsoft, like a true enterprise-minded vendor, has baked in security from the get-go, not as an afterthought. And like other mobile industry players, Microsoft allows corporate-style apps in its Marketplace, and developers have to submit those for certification. Microsoft ensures that all apps in its Marketplace run well, and IT organizations get certificates to distribute to end users for access to those private applications. The downside of this approach: It has required the use of Windows Live ID, another point of administration. But with Win 8, those applications can exist anywhere: in Marketplace, on a Web server or private file server, or in the cloud. IT can distribute applications with, say, an email link. The key is that IT maintains deployment control. And with Windows Phone 8, Microsoft announced Company Hub, an app that IT can customize to incorporate only approved or corporate-developed Windows Phone 8 apps.
4 Microsoft's forthcoming Office 2013, with its heavy emphasis on the cloud, should fuel the movement toward device-independent computing. Heretofore, tablets and phones haven't been considered content-creation devices as much as content-consumption devices. Microsoft aims to change that. Touch-enabling Office is half of the equation; cloud access is the other. Combine the fact that Office is well entrenched in the enterprise and runs first on Windows with a trend toward integrated communication (seamless movement from email to calendar to presence to instant messaging to video, especially from within productivity applications), and it starts to make a lot of sense to stick with a single platform. Advances in Server 2012 help, too.
5 Finally, Microsoft has one other gust of wind at its back: Research In Motion's decline. The BlackBerry, long the preferred mobile device for enterprise IT teams intent on maintaining control, is going the way of the dodo. Late last month, RIM announced that BlackBerry 10 won't work with the current BlackBerry Enterprise Server. And current BlackBerrys won't work with the new BES. It's almost as if RIM is daring IT to supplant BlackBerry with Android and iOS--much to the chagrin of security teams everywhere.
If Microsoft, with its proven management track record, can win IT's favor on the smartphone and tablet side, Win 8 devices could get a significant boost. In fact, in our survey, Windows Phone 8 jumps from the No. 4 position (behind iOS, BlackBerry, and Android) in 2012 to No. 2 in 2014, mainly at RIM's expense. It's clearly Redmond's game to lose.