Why enterprises will skip Windows 8

Enterprise IT had a good business case for moving off the nearly decade old Windows XP operating system and onto the more modern Windows 7.

Windows 8 is shaping up to be a different story.

The world doesn’t know much about Windows 8 right now, but one thing is clear: The transition from Windows’ traditional desktop user interface (UI) to the new, touch-based Metro UI will make for a rocky transition. Fresh from a Windows 7 upgrade that has moved corporate Windows desktops into the current decade, IT is likely skip Windows 8, even if consumers embrace it.

The effect of even small changes to the desktop UI in enterprise adoption can’t be overstated. Vista introduced moderate changes to the UI that forced a jarring adjustment upon some enterprise users. For example, the new File Explorer, with its concept of libraries, was lost on many workers. Other changes that might seem subtle to more sophisticated information workers, such as the new taskbar, also confused. Paul Shane, IT director at the Philadelphia office of Milliman Inc., said that as he rolled out Windows 7 in the enterprise last year, many users even had trouble navigating the new Start menu. “If it’s not a shortcut on the desktop, they’re in trouble,” he said. Vista had other issues, of course, and IT waited for Microsoft to get it right with Windows 7 before moving forward.

Windows 8 will be far more challenging. Metro grafts a consumer-focused touch-screen user interface that was originally designed for devices running its mobile OS, Windows Phone 7 (devices to which the user can’t practically attach a mouse and keyboard) onto the traditional information worker’s laptop or desktop with its much larger, vertically oriented screen.

Windows 8 is a complete re-engineering of the desktop user interface. Gone is the desktop metaphor, replaced by a “personal mosaic of tiles” similar to the UI of the Windows Phone 7 OS.

This “touch-first” Windows 8 and its Metro UI may be designed to be used with a mouse and keyboard as well as touch, but it’s still not going to be an easy adjustment for enterprise users. It will be like walking into a different house, with a completely different floor plan and décor.

Split personality

Yes, the operating system will let users step down into a “Windows 7 mode” to run their legacy Windows applications, but users will be forced to work in both interfaces, and running two Windows personalities side by side is bound to confuse. Why? Because the two UIs have some very different ways of doing things.

For example, Windows 8 changes how the file system works. In the new file system model data files are associated with applications and can only be manipulated from within applications. Meanwhile, in Windows 7 mode things will operate as they always did.

Choosing Windows 8 will force users to live in a dual-UI world for an extended period of time, as both enterprise and commercial applications will need to be completely rewritten to support HTML 5 and Javascript in order to move into the Metro world. That transition is likely to take many, many years.

Transition pain. Questionable gain.

No doubt IT will be asking why enterprise desktops and laptops need touch right now. With HP’s TouchSmart, its all-in-one touch-screen desktop PC, many of the aspects of touch-screen technology that make it compelling on hand-held tablets and smart phones go unused – and it can be clunky to interact with a large, upright touch-screen monitor. Touch is instead most commonly used only as what Ken Bosley at HP calls “an absolute pointing device,” an alternative way to push a button or select an item on screen.

“Nobody is going to sit down and spend an hour updating a spreadsheet with touch. That's not what it's good for,” said Bosley, product manager for HP’s consumer Desktop Global Business, during a conversation we had about emerging touch-screen display technology last year. “Even with web surfing you'll probably type in the URL on the keyboard. But following links you use touch. It's used for very quick types of interactions…to start a DVD or something,” he said.

The TouchSmart is geared toward and sells mostly to consumers.

Windows 8 also wants a wide screen display with a 16 x 9 aspect ratio at 1366 x 768 pixels. A 1024 x 768 or higher display will still work, but not optimally.

Most enterprises don’t change out monitors every time they upgrade or replace personal computers. And to take full advantage of Windows 8, IT will need to buy multi-touch screens –- either integrated, as with the TouchSmart, or separately. And touch screen technology, says HP’s Bosley, adds about $150 to the total cost of a PC purchase.

In evaluating Windows 8, the question IT needs to ask is this: For the extra cost in hardware and training, and the likely disruption, what value will Windows 8 bring to the enterprise user? In the short term, the answer so far looks to be “not too much.”

Update 7/19/2011: According to HP, the in addition to the consumer version of the TouchSmart PC, the PC maker also sells a commercial version, the TouchSmart 9300 Elite, for vertical market applications in areas such as health care, retail and hospitality.

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