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Microsoft's latest 'bet the farm' operating system wager debuts

Stuart J. Johnston

Microsoft will officially launch Windows 8 this week and, while many experts have questioned whether the new system provides enough meat to attract IT pros, even if it falls flat, iterations of Microsoft's iconic system will be around for years to come.

In fact, despite new form factors such as tablets and smartphones eclipsing Windows dominance in the personal devices category, a new study by Forrester Research Inc. showed that while those new markets are where the money is, Microsoft will continue to rule corporate desktops.

Microsoft Windows' share of all personal devices shrunk to 30% in 2012, according to the report titled Windows: The Next Five Years. That number conglomerates PCs, tablets and phones into a single category called personal devices -- but it's apparently not as dire as it looks, at least in the short- and mid-term.

"In 2016, Microsoft will retain almost 90% of the projected 370+ million PCs sold," the report said, adding that PC sales are still growing overall.

Indeed, some observers say it's more appropriate to view Windows 8 as two separate systems.

"Windows 8 is the new version of Windows for x86 [processors]," said Michael Cherry, research vice president for operating systems at analyst firm Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash.

Meanwhile, Windows RT is built to run on ARM processors found in most smartphones and tablets, which means it does not support x86 legacy applications, although Microsoft is making a custom version of Office available pre-installed on ARM devices, such as the new Microsoft Surface.

"With RT, we're talking about a new member of the Windows family," Cherry said.

That doesn't eliminate the continuing importance of PCs, but it does mean that competition will still be stiff for Windows 8, with nearly half of all PCs in use today running on the obsolete 11-year-old Windows XP and the rest mostly running Windows 7. The question is whether or not Windows 8 will provide enough new and enhanced features to entice enterprise IT departments to upgrade.

Still, despite skepticism in many circles, not all users think Windows 8 and Windows RT will flop.

"Microsoft has done so much focus group testing over the past two years that the chance of Windows 8 flaming out is close to zero," said Mark Eisenberg, director at enterprise application and cloud integration firm Fino Consulting based in New York City.

"Beyond that, there's not a whole lot to say except the proof is in the pudding ... after all, everybody hated XP when it first came out," Eisenberg said.

Time will tell.


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