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February 24, 2014updated 22 Sep 2016 2:04pm

The battle for enterprise IT

With Windows XP about to expire, which IT trends will determine the future of business?

By Joe Curtis

XPiration

April 8th is a date all CIOs will have circled with red pen in their diaries. That’s when Microsoft’s support for Windows XP expires, ending 13 years of enterprise dominance for Bill Gates’ operating system.

Thousands of companies have grown hugely reliant on the OS, but with trends like mobility, the consumerisation of IT and virtualisation on the rise, the future of enterprise IT is possibly more varied than ever before.

The important thing isn’t the big circle on the 8th; it’s that a jagged red question mark isn’t scrawled over the next day on the calendar.

The widely-advertised date comes at an odd time not just for Microsoft, but for the enterprise IT industry at large.
Microsoft is generally acknowledged as undergoing a period of revitalisation.

New CEO Satya Nadella has filled the seat at the head of the table not long after the tech giant’s $7.2bn acquisition of Nokia, but also following ex-boss Steve Ballmer’s admission that the enterprise giant had missed the boat on tablets and devices.

Perhaps partly as a result, the market looks very different to how it once did. Microsoft no longer has a stranglehold on the competition, and end users have dictated a shift to tablets and smartphones provided by the likes of Apple and Google, while the cloud space has many big players.

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It leaves CIOs with lots of decisions to make over whether they upgrade to Windows 7/8, look into virtualisation, or even go more heavily down the BYOD route.

So what are the options available to businesses once XP support runs out? And will Microsoft play as large a role in their futures as it did 13 years ago?

The death of the desktop

Managed IT firm Colt believes it depends on a variety of factors, but that they all lead to the death of the desktop.

Principal cloud specialist Steve Hughes says: "As work becomes more mobile, and you can actually access the information from a variety of devices, the desktop idea will disappear gradually.

"XP is one of the issues but certainly not the main issue. There’s the move to mobile, there’s BYOD. What customers are looking for is a platform where they can cope with all of this."

Colt believes that answer is its Workspace-as-a-Service (WaaS) solution, which basically digitises the office environment – a virtualised service designed to provide anytime, anywhere access to business applications and data on various mobile devices.

Colt claims WaaS supports end user choice while making it easy for IT to deploy upgrades and control access.

Virtualisation has the additional obvious benefit of cutting infrastructure costs, and Citrix’s UK country manager, Jason Tooley, tells CBR the virtualisation software provider has seen a jump in the number of businesses going on a hardware diet.

"Lots of customers see the end of support for XP as a natural opportunity to migrate away from a fat client infrastructure to a more thin client model," he explains.

But he’s sceptical about rival VMWare’s much-trumpeted deal with Google to pipe legacy Windows applications into the Chromebook, which could prove a big step into the enterprise market from the search engine giant.

Google says firms will save around $5,000 per computer by adopting its Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) model, where the Windows desktop is layered on top of Chrome, but Citrix thinks it’s just blowing smoke.

"It’s not user experience-friendly," says Tooley. "If users are asked to spin up two desktops for two separate applications, they may find that unsatisfactory."

Such clumsy approaches may put paid to consumer tech companies’ forays into the enterprise market, with a recent Gartner study showing that traditional PC providers like HP, Lenovo and Toshiba continue to lead the declining market.

But Tooley believes that at its heart, the virtualisation trend is centred around improving productivity – and that means mobile devices.

Office and the iPad

"It’s really all about how do I get my applications delivered on the device of my choice?" he suggests.

Gartner research VP of mobile and client platforms, Michael Silver, adds that this is where Microsoft is trailing Google and other consumer-oriented companies.

"Microsoft is still fooling itself saying it offers Office for iPad as a browser. People don’t want that," he states.

Rumours abound that Microsoft is about to provide an Office app for the iPad. With Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Eps claiming Office is a $20bn business, the question is whether Nadella can afford not to open up access to its prize software suite when it has been so decisively outstripped in the tablet space.

"What’s forcing Microsoft to do [integration] is the desire to remain relevant and make money on Office," adds Silver. "By not having it, it certainly risks irrelevancy there."

iPad Mini

Saying that, however, Silver is quick to state that for enterprises which have already begun the shift to Windows 7 or 8, it makes sense for them to upgrade the rest of their infrastructure.

He says: "The vast majority [of businesses] will still go to Windows 7. Especially when you consider that a lot of these organisations have already moved a significant proportion of their PCs to Windows 7."

He believes Microsoft will remain a big player in the future of the enterprise market, but the market is going be far more varied than ever before, with the most successful IT firms being the ones who meet customer demand best – with virtualisation services finally becoming more mainstream.

"The next year or two we’re talking about experimenting. It’s almost contradictory but we’ll have early adopters of what is a very mature technology.

"It all depends on the state of Windows applications and whether users need them disconnected, or whether they need them mobile?"

CIC analyst Clive Howard strikes a more positive note for the future of Microsoft’s mobile presence, believing Microsoft’s new boss will provide a sharp change of direction at the helm of the enterprise IT giant.

"The important point is that Microsoft will be running on lots of applications," he tells CBR. "Now your phone might be iOS, your tablet Android, your desktop Windows.

"They are going to be rolling out native Office on other devices, they’ll be rolling out major applications on other platforms, giving you tools to build on other platforms themselves so the obsession with Windows and the platform is no longer what it used to be."

Last Word

But the CEO of enterprise collaboration software provider Huddle believes other players have got there first.

Alastair Mitchell rates Office highly, but thinks Microsoft hasn’t kept a close enough eye on how enterprise IT has adapted to suit new working methods.

"They’re focusing on Office but they’re not thinking about how you then use Office with other people," he tells CBR.

In his own words, Huddle has "basically hacked Word". Huddle allows users across mobile devices to open a document, save it and immediately share those changes with colleagues in other locations.

"So many customers come to us saying ‘we’re a Microsoft user but we’re only buying Office now. We want a collaboration tool that can link the people in our office together’," Mitchell explains.

"Traditionally it’s been I work and I save. In today’s world it’s I work and I share. That’s the bit that Microsoft just hasn’t got its head around."

What to do, what to do?

For most traditional businesses, upgrading from XP to Windows 7 or 8 makes a lot of sense. But for many others, Microsoft appears in danger of becoming left behind in key spaces in which it is guilty of simply not innovating enough.

Office may remain the backbone of the IT suite, but for enterprises where infrastructure costs are a big issue, or those which have seen a shift from the PC to mobile devices, Microsoft may no longer hold all the answers.

XP’s expiration is as much of a test for Microsoft as it is for businesses: the tech giant needs to demonstrate it’s still as innovative as it was when it first released the operating system, and that it can adapt to a market where it is unlikely to see such all-over levels of dominance as it did with XP.

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