Microsoft's next operating system promises to be everything. Designed to power both tablets and conventional PCs, Windows 8 is ambitious and risky. The new OS will feature the touch-oriented Metro interface that we first saw in Windows Phone 7. That means Microsoft's "reimagined" flagship OS will be the first Windows version since the iconic Windows 95 to revamp, rather than simply tweak, the desktop interface.
Windows 8's touch-friendly tiles might make sense for tablet users, but how will Microsoft's bread-and-butter business clientele embrace the radically new look and feel?
Windows XP is 10 years old, yet a substantial number of businesses are still using it.
They’re not really at fault. Upgrading to Windows Vista was considered too much work for too little payoff, and for many businesses upgrading to Windows 7 has for a long time seemed unnecessary.
That’s changing, however. With the rise of Ultrabooks and tablets, businesses using XP have found that it falls short. Decreasing support from manufacturers and software vendors means that XP can no longer drive the technologies they want to use.
Many in this position tell me that their plan is to wait for Windows 8. It shouldn’t be. Not only will migrating from XP to Windows 8 be a more difficult and complex task than moving right now to Windows 7, but Windows 8 remains a long way off.
Time to upgrade, but to what?
Support for Windows XP will end in two years. Microsoft has already renewed its lease on life twice, and it won’t do so again.
At the moment, you simply can’t buy a new PC with XP, and downgrade licenses can be hard to obtain.
Businesses using XP know they need to upgrade. Rather than develop plans and policies around Windows 7, however, some are understandably attracted to Windows 8.
For one thing, Microsoft is spruiking Windows 8 as a fix for integrating PCs, phones and tablets across the enterprise — something that IT leaders know is a must.
For another, they believe that if they have to go through what could prove to be a difficult upgrade process, it might as well be to the latest and greatest thing.
But I think waiting for Windows 8 is a risk for a number of reasons:
We don’t know exactly what it is
The Windows 8 beta has not yet been released, and therefore we can’t assess its utility for the enterprise. So far, Microsoft has been promoting consumer-oriented features of the OS, such as its tile interface. We simply can’t be certain yet what these features will mean for the enterprise desktop. It could be that businesses will find Windows 8 to be too consumer focused.
We don’t know when it will be out
With the beta due for release shortly, we can assume on previous experience that Windows 8 will see a general release sometime between October and December this year.
That said, many businesses will prefer to engage in the traditional wait for Service Pack 1, so it may be July next year before they’re ready to upgrade. At that point, XP’s lifecycle will have only six months left to run.
It’s going to be a bigger leap
When you move from XP to Windows 7, most users find the change relatively easy. It’s a much more intuitive switch than that between Office 2003 and the ribbon-based Office 2010, for example.
Exactly what the tile interface and the emphasis on tablets and touch will mean for desktop familiarity in Windows 8 is yet to been discovered, but it’s bound to be a bigger change and there will be a learning curve.
Indeed, when you look at demonstrations of Windows 8, the interface has more in common with an Xbox than a PC. The OS is very deliberately aimed at smartphones, tablets and other ARM-powered devices. This may turn out to be a big ask for enterprises.
It’s easier to upgrade to Windows 7
IT vendors now have a wealth of experience migrating their customers from XP to Windows 7, something that businesses going straight to Windows 8 won’t benefit from.
In addition, Windows 7 is well supported by manufacturers and suppliers today, and there doesn’t seem to be a great deal that Windows 8 will do in future that Windows 7 can’t right now.
Businesses running XP need to understand that Windows 8 won’t be the silver bullet that offers them an easy upgrade.
Their best bet is to develop a plan to move to Windows 7 as soon as they can — a system that’s a ready, proven and available quantity.
Rhys Evans is national practice manager of enterprise information systems with Thomas Duryea.