Businesses should be looking at Windows 8 even if they are dead certain it won't be their operating system of choice for years to come, experts say.
That's because of widespread bring-your-own-device programs that will inevitably bring Windows 8 tablets into the workplace and IT departments will have to give them a thumbs up or thumbs down.
BRIEFLY: The Windows 8 FAQ
That means buying Windows 8 devices, working with them in the IT department, testing them in laboratory-simulated work environments and running limited pilot deployments among likely users, says David Johnson, an analyst with Forrester.
Gartner analyst Steve Kleynhans says IT staff should take all of 2013 to look at Windows 8 to evaluate it as the eventual standard for their company's use, but also to determine how to handle it as a BYOD candidate, which will likely come up as an issue much sooner, he says. "It could take off quickly like the iPad and have a lot of users demanding to use it," he says.
Johnson says he thinks the chances of that are slim. "We don't think there will be a huge influx of Windows 8 devices," he says, citing Forrester research that says interest in Android and iOS devices is stronger among workers. "They have a large influence in choosing work tablets," he says.
Forrester research also indicates less interest in Windows 8 overall compared to interest in Windows 7 when it was about to launch. In 2012, 47% of respondents to a Forrester survey say they haven't looked at Windows 8 yet. Back in 2009 near the launch of Windows 7, that number was just 27%.
Just 24% say today that they expect to migrate to Windows 8 but have no specific plans while in 2009 49% expected to migrate to Windows 7. That leads Forrester to conclude that Windows 8 will largely be skipped as an IT standard.
That still leaves the question of dealing with Windows 8 being brought into work environments as personal devices. On the BYOD front, Johnson says one class of portable Windows 8 devices weighs in heavier than competing devices and because one version of Windows 8 runs on x86 processors, they don't have the battery life of portables such as iPads. Those factors may blunt the proliferation of Windows 8 machines as BYOD devices.
The tablet version of Windows 8, Windows RT, is lighter and has longer battery life but doesn't support traditional business applications. It may someday, but not initially, he says. Still it may present itself as a BYOD alternative.
Klyenhans notes that Windows 8 with its dual user interface - the touch interface called modern and the traditional desktop - mean that it will be sold on hybrid and convergable devices that include at touchscreen and a keyboard. "They may be very applicable to certain types of users," he says.
More than just evaluating the devices, IT departments should determine which employees are likely good candidates for using them based on what their job is and how sophisticated they are technologically.
Forrester says the evaluation descriptions of who are best suited for BYOD can be helped along by developing what the research firm calls personas. "When developing personas for your organization, it's critical to take note of individuals who have a strong interest in technology and finding innovative ways to be more productive," according to a Forrester research report.
Kleynhans says that typically traveling workers appreciate devices that act as tablets on the road but full notebooks when they get back to their hotel rooms. "The only way to know is to do a pilot and proof of concept," he says.
The Forrester report concurs that mobile professionals are good BYOD candidates and that 74% of them use laptops.
Johnson says businesses need to write formal BYOD policies that include legal documents in which users acknowledge restrictions to what they can do with their devices when connected to corporate networks and authorizing some corporate management of the devices, including the ability to wipe corporate data should they be lost or stolen.
IT departments need to control user access on these devices, ensure data encryption and restrict the ability to move data off them to other drives. Partitioning the hard drives of these devices may also be necessary to protect corporate data. "It depends on how much data is local," Johnson says.
(Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Tim_Greene.)
Read more about software in Network World's Software section.