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November 26, 2012

Windows 8: boom or bust?

Microsoft has released one of its most important products ever: Windows 8. Steve Evans looks at the new operating system and examines whether businesses should gamble on upgrading and what they can do to ensure the migration goes smoothly

By Steve Evans

Windows 8

The release of Windows 8 has been described variously as "pivotal," "a gamble" and even the "start of a new era" for Microsoft. Like the rest of the technology world, the Redmond giant has seen a steady shift away from traditional desktop PCs towards a more mobile future; smartphones, laptops – and the various products within that category such as notebooks and netbooks – and tablets are what people want to use now.

Previously, this development would not have mattered to Microsoft as it has not been a big player in those spaces, particularly tablets, but that has changed. The release of Windows 8 marks a huge transformation for the company as it is, essentially, a tablet-first operating system (OS).

It will, of course, work on desktops, but the main feature of Windows 8, the new-look user interface (UI), is straight from the world of tablets. Previously called ‘Metro’ – Microsoft had to drop the name after a trademark dispute – the new UI does away with the traditional Start menu and desktop look we have all been so used to for so long.

Instead, Windows 8 uses tiles to represent files, folders and apps as well as anything else the user may want, such as a shortcut to a website. On a touch-screen device the user swipes their finger to move between tiles and screens rather than a mouse.

The thinking behind all this is clear – the world is becoming more dependent on mobile devices and Microsoft wants to get in on the act.

"When the PC dominated personal computing by providing a single device for messaging, Internet access, gaming and productivity, Windows was a powerhouse for Microsoft," says Michael Silver, vice-president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. "However, smartphones and tablets, led by the iPhone and iPad, have changed the way people work, making the PC just one of several devices people use. The PC is increasingly simply a peer with other devices."

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It is seen as such a radical departure from traditional Windows environments that Microsoft has even created its own hardware to show what it hopes is the real potential of Windows 8. The Surface tablet will eventually run on Windows 8 Pro, but for now we have to make do with Windows RT, a version of the OS that is specially designed to run on ARM architecture rather than Intel’s.

Microsoft would probably say it is unfair to label Windows RT a stripped-down version of Windows 8; it is, after all, a very different beast, designed to embrace the more app-centric world of tablets, as well as take advantage of the improved battery life offered by ARM architecture. The traditional Microsoft features are there, though, such as Office, albeit optimised for touchscreens.

However, Windows RT is unlike Windows 8 in that apps will not run across both, which could cause a few headaches. Ultimately, what Microsoft is aiming for here is unification across desktops, tablets and, to a lesser extent, smartphones, with a similar feel to all three architectures (which is something you cannot get via iOS or Android). But when the Surface Pro arrives, that issue will go away as it will be able to run anything a desktop PC can.

It is the mobile space where many are predicting Windows 8 will be a success, particularly when it comes to enterprises. IT departments will be much happier controlling a Microsoft mobile environment than, for example, Android or Apple’s iOS. Compatibility with existing systems is a very attractive prospect.

"Windows RT is interesting an awful lot of [enterprises]," Ian Simpson, director of systems consulting at Quest Software, now a part of Dell, tells CBR. "Whereas they will not allow iPads in because they cannot be secured without third-party software, Windows RT is Microsoft and people are more willing to embrace it. I think when Pro comes out as well it will cause a surge of interest in the tablets; they will be seen as viable and enterprise-ready, because they are Microsoft."

It is in the desktop space where Microsoft could struggle to gain a foothold in the enterprise. Windows 7 is only just over three years old; many business are either still undergoing migration to it or have only recently finished. Enterprise uptake of Windows 7 has been quicker than any other OS release, according to Microsoft, which, given how old XP is and how poorly Vista was received, is not a surprise.

Many businesses on Windows 7 will simply not want to go through another update cycle so soon, so may even skip over Windows 8 entirely. Quest, one of the largest migration specialists in the industry, says the company has actually seen very little interest in Windows 8 migration so far.

"The majority of our corporate/enterprise customers are more than halfway through their Windows 7 upgrade plans, and are not even going to look at it until that is complete. But they are interested and we are seeing the technical people look at it, even though it’s not part of corporate policy," Simpson says.

But it is not these people that Microsoft is really targeting. Speaking to CBR, Microsoft’s senior director for Windows Commercial, Edwin Visser, says: "The priority is to get people off XP. Support will run out in April 2014 and research suggests support and management costs will significantly increase over the next few months if you stay on it."

Visser adds that the similarities between Windows 7 and 8 (much of the underlying infrastructure is the same, despite the vast difference in appearance) means that businesses should look at introducing Windows 8 alongside 7,without waiting for the older OS to be fully deployed. Making the jump from XP to Windows 8 is the same as making it to Windows 7, Visser adds.

The combination of XP’s end of life and the fact that Windows 7 is still relatively new means most enterprise migrations to Windows 8 will be from the older operating system. That is not going to be an easy task.

"Giving a user a new PC with Windows 8 is the easy part; apart from the training issues with the new interface, the biggest challenge is the application compatibility," Quest’s Simpson says. "There will be a lot of applications [on XP] that will not migrate."

Checking compatibility of your XP applications with Windows 7 or 8 is a fairly easy task; there are plenty of platforms on the market that will do the job, and offer a traffic light system to indicate compatibility (green), modifications needed (amber) or non-compatibility (red). Slight modifications to applications can often solve the problem, as can running them via server-based computing such as a virtual desktop instead of natively.

Automating this process helps companies work out where to prioritise; for example, applications flagged as red need most attention, but only if they are heavily used by workers at the company.

Simpson points out that this is a good opportunity to examine software licences and look at where savings can potentially be made – if an incompatible application is barely being used, why bother upgrading it? Money saved on software licences can be significant, Simpson says.

Windows 8

One firm looking at Window 8 is UK telecoms giant BT. Peter Scott, head of end-user computing at the company, says the majority of people at BT are already running Windows 7, but a few were still lagging on Windows XP. The company was looking for that magical combination of a good user experience and productivity, cost and security.

"We ran sessions called Hothouses, where we looked at what sort of devices and operating systems we could offer our engineers," Scott says. "We had hundreds of workers come along and we put loads of devices in front of them – iPads, Android tablets, slates, laptops that convert into tablets – and they decided because of all the different things they wanted, the device for Windows would be the best option."

BT has actually been rolling out Windows 8 steadily since September 2011 and now has around 4,500 deployments in various forms. Despite many of these rollouts being on mobile devices, Scott says BT will not be using Windows RT due to the need for all the enterprise- and security-specific features on the full version.

Training requirements were kept to a minimum as well, Scott says, with just "five or six" things that needed to be shown to the users.

The rollout seems to be going smoothly over at BT, but it is fair to assume other companies will not be so lucky. However, with careful consideration (see ‘Five migration pitfalls to avoid’ below) there is no reason why migration to Windows 8 cannot be a successful endeavour.

Windows 8 is a big gamble for Microsoft as it attempts to stay relevant in an increasingly mobile world. The idea of unifying an operating system to run in a similar way across desktops and mobile devices is certainly a bold one and it is easy to see the appeal for IT departments in dealing with another Microsoft environment rather than Android or iOS.

However, given that so many businesses have only just recently started or completed – or are part of the way through – a Windows 7migration, enterprise adoption of Windows 8 may not be as fast as Microsoft hopes.

Those still lagging on XP, where Microsoft seems to be pinning a lot of its hopes, may well be attracted to the more mature Windows 7, rather than the new Windows 8.


Five migration pitfalls to avoid

  • Poor planning – Companies often plunge into major migrations without reviewing existing environments (users, groups, public folders, etc) as well as what needs to be moved (data stores, users, mailboxes) and what doesn’t (unused accounts, stale data, empty mailboxes). Assessing application and browser compatibility and preparing for the move are crucial.
  • Underestimating user and organisational impact – Another common yet potentially critical mistake is underestimating the migration’s impact on users and operations and failing to analyse all access points. It’s imperative to make the move by identifying workflows, mailboxes, programs and/or other pieces of infrastructure before they are impacted.
  • Lack of coexistence strategy – Failing to provide seamless coexistence between existing and new systems is a frequent oversight, which can lead to service disruptions, lost productivity and increased business costs.
  • Migration insurance policy – Performing regular backups is common sense, yet frequently companies falter when it comes to having an extra measure of protection to avoid data loss during a migration. Having a full backup and recovery plan in place is paramount.
  • Failure to focus on ‘post-migration’ management – Concentrating on execution without paying attention to optimising the new environment is a common pitfall. Executing a world-class migration necessitates robust project management, but ongoing reporting, auditing, recovery and monitoring are essential to ensure the new system is compliant.
    Source: Quest Software


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