Windows 8 may be the most disruptive operating system upgrade in 17 years, but the learning curve isn't as steep as some have claimed, enterprise support company PC Helps said today.
"It will be very difficult to adjust to, no doubt of that," said Joe Puckett, PC Helps' director of training. "But there are a lot of things that can be done to minimize the disruption."
Many would disagree.
Windows 8 has been knocked by reviewers, analysts and online pundits as a difficult-if-not-impossible upgrade because of its dual, and dueling, user interfaces (UI), one that supports the touch-first, tile-style apps formerly known as Metro, the other very similar to Windows 7's traditional desktop.
The criticisms have been scathing at times, with analysts predicting that corporations will shun Windows 8 because of increased training time and help desk costs, and reviewers have almost universally come out against the new Start screen, the disappearance of the venerable Start button and the jarring switch between the two UIs.
PC Helps, a Pennsylvania provider of on-demand support and training to corporations, sees the situation differently. Its experience supporting one 7,000-employee company's migration to the new operating system, and its two decades managing other mission-critical software transitions, has convinced it that upgrading, while full of pitfalls, is possible.
Puckett declined to name the client PC Helps is working with on a Windows 8 migration.
"How much the new interface changes are disruptive depends on how a company chooses to do rollouts," said Puckett. If a firm focuses on mobile users, for example, Windows 8 will go down much easier. "Anyone who has used a smartphone will pick up [Metro] very quickly, so it will be easy to get it across to people," Puckett said.
Desktop migrations -- or those that include traditional PCs along with mobile devices -- will be tougher, Puckett acknowledged.
"Windows 8 is disruptive the second you turn it on," said Puckett. "With earlier migrations, such as Windows XP to Windows 7, you could roll it out and do the training later. But if you don't do the training before you roll out [Windows 8], you'll get a big negative reaction."
In Windows 8's case, moving employee training up front is crucial, Puckett argued, to familiarize workers with the new UI, the bouncing between Metro and the desktop, and how to do simple tasks such as shutting down the PC.
But some of that pain can be eased by the IT staff.
"Windows 8's desktop is really a very Windows 7-looking interface," Puckett said. "People complain about not knowing how to shut down the PC. But IT can actually create a shortcut for shutting down, and pin it to the Start screen and the [desktop's] taskbar."
Images crafted to specific groups of employees could also be crafted by IT that, for instance, strip all tiles from the Start screen except for the one that leads to the desktop.
"You should also find the people in any given area who are going to be influencers," said Puckett. "There's always someone in every department that everyone knows that they know more [about Windows and computers] than anyone else. Put them in the pilot group for migration and give them a good experience."
Puckett also argued that for the short-term pain of learning Windows 8, users will accumulate long-term gains.
"Like Google and Apple, Microsoft's vision is one interface across multiple devices," Puckett said, talking of desktops, notebooks, tablets and with the upcoming introduction of Windows Phone 8, even smartphones. "Down the road, that cuts down the learning curve."
In Windows' history, said Puckett, moving to Windows 8 doesn't even take top prize as the most disruptive: He gave that dubious award to the Windows 3.1-to-Windows 95 shift that started in mid-1995.
"It's going to be what you make of it," Puckett said. "Targeting groups and prep are going to be key."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.