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Upgrade to Windows 8: Who will make the switch?

Stuart J. Johnston

Microsoft's decision to make the Windows 8 UI the same for all its customers presents major challenges for IT pros.

First, the cost to upgrade pre-existing hardware to support Windows 8's touch-sensitive user interface (UI), even if it's only $50 or $100 per machine, is too high for many enterprises.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has pitched the Windows 8 UI for desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones -- as well as embedded applications.

Of course, Windows 8 can be used with a keyboard and a mouse, but it was primarily designed for touch-use, and that is likely to impact hardware budgets, as well as turn off many more traditional PC users.

For one thing, endpoint costs may be boosted by the need for more expensive touch hardware to take advantage of Windows 8's UI. It's possible a large number of budget-constrained IT organizations may opt for non-touch hardware, which undercuts a major reason for making the upgrade to Windows 8 in the first place.

"Most corporations will stay with Windows 7 [for running desktop computers] for the foreseeable future," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at researcher Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif. "People don't like to learn new interfaces," Enderle added.

That's the path that Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. will take.

"[We] most likely will go forward with downgrade rights [to Windows 7] until we're sure [Windows 8] is compatible [with the hospital's applications]," said Rob McShinsky, a senior systems engineer at the medical center.

However, some do like the look of the Windows 8 tiled interface, with one exception.

"It was a mistake not to put the Start button on the interface," said Dennis Martin, president of the Rocky Mountain Windows Technology User Group in Denver, Colo.

McShinsky agreed.

"From a desktop perspective, I'd want a way to switch back to the older UI," he added. The medical center is still in the early stages of migrating to Windows 7.

While there is some interest in touch-sensitive displays among his users, it's an added expense in the budget, McShinsky said. "There hasn't been an outpouring of demand for touch displays," he added.

By trying to make Windows 8 fit on every device, Microsoft risks turning off its traditional IT audience.

One of the areas that could introduce significant friction into IT deployments is the cost of bringing users up to speed on the new UI, as well as training the technical staff to configure and maintain a new system.

"User interface [training] can be a really large investment," said Paul DeGroot, principal consultant at Pica Communications LLC, a Windows licensing consultancy based in Camano Island, Wash.

Windows 8 biggest competition: Windows 7?

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously said that Windows' toughest competitor is always the previous version of Windows. He may be up against it this time around. Some 38.54% of users globally are currently running on Windows 7, according to Web analytics firm NetApplications. Another 38.46% are still on Windows XP.

Displacing 11-year-old XP will bring Windows 8 new opportunities, but whether customers instead buy downgraded PCs and laptops with Windows 7 pre-installed, the way they did previously, swapping XP for the ill-fated Vista remains to be seen.

More than a billion people already use Windows worldwide. If Ballmer's anecdote about the previous version of Windows being the new one's toughest competition turns out to be true once again -- and there's no reason to suspect he's wrong -- that could be very bad news for Windows 8.

Microsoft has repeatedly been criticized for its lack of success in the smartphone market, and even more so because of its lack of entries in the booming tablet market. Confusingly, the tiled Windows 8 UI, which was designed for a lightweight, small form factor, touch-based mobile environment, is being presented as the primary UI for the desktop and laptop versions of Windows 8 as well.

The question is whether that's appropriate for users. It's obvious that Microsoft designed Windows 8 to garner market share in smartphones and tablets -- even going as far as launching its own Microsoft-branded tablet computer, the Surface.

However, despite decades of working to establish itself in both realms, Microsoft has failed to make more than fractional headway in either burgeoning technology market. An August report by comScore put Microsoft's mobile market share at just 3.6%, compared with 52.6% for Google, and 34.3% for Apple.

However, not everyone agrees that training users on Windows 8 would be that difficult.

"It'd be something to learn, but it's not 100% different," Martin said.

In fact, Microsoft does stand some chance of finally establishing its vision of Windows everywhere, according to some users and analysts.

"If Microsoft can come up with one interface that can be used everywhere, it can make the argument that one is better than multiple UIs," said Charles King, principal analyst at corporate advisory firm Pund-IT Inc. in Hayward, Calif.

In the long run, however, users will decide whether Microsoft chose correctly.

"On paper, it's brilliant, but pulling it off ... oh, crap," Enderle said.


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