Should enterprises wait for Windows 8.1 features or retrain users now?

Training to get enterprise users accustomed to the Windows 8 touch interface might not need to wait for Windows 8.1 features, explains our columnist.

News about Windows 8.1 features -- coming within a mere year of the release of Windows 8, instead of two or three -- has inspired a great deal of discussion. Should enterprises wait for the updated operating system, or should they retrain users now to get used to the changes brought on by Windows 8 generally?

Most of the differences in Windows 8 features are incremental

When word first broke that a rapidly delivered successor to Windows 8 was on the way, speculation raged about what would be in the box. Some changes have since turned out to be relatively minor, but useful.

For example, the Start button (although not the Windows 7 Start menu) has staged a return, making it easier for both mouse wielders and touchscreen users to invoke the menu. And the search function returns results in a way that more closely resembles the behavior in Windows 7, where the first few results were returned from multiple categories at once.

But these differences by themselves don't make the user interface changes any less jarring. Microsoft has still scrapped the original Start menu and kept the Charms bar and the other associated Windows 8 features, and the company has not reduced the general emphasis on touch. To that end, it's going to be hard to avoid some training to get the basics of Windows 8 under one's belt.

Windows 8 doesn't need to be on desktops, but it's getting harder to avoid using touch-driven hardware.

Few cases can be made for using Windows 8 on a desktop that has no touch hardware. This is slightly less true for Windows 8.1, but less because of the changes in the OS itself than because of a widening sense of how to deal with it via keyboard shortcuts.

What's becoming clearer, though, is how touch hardware is being added that much more regularly to systems where before it would have been omitted. The cost of adding touch to a display drops with each successive generation of systems, to the point where adding it becomes akin to adding the trusted platform module: It's not the cost that matters, but the target audience for the device.

Although many business-class notebook users don't typically see themselves as touch device users -- since many such notebooks don't feature touch -- that may be changing as more touch devices infiltrate the workplace. They may soon come to expect touch as a standard feature, since to not have it in their work machines may eventually be seen as frustrating and confounding as working without a mouse.

How long this will all take to happen is another story. We're only just now seeing the emergence of a workforce weaned on touch devices rather than keyboards and mice. The need to train the current workforce to adapt, instead of waiting for employees to catch up on their own, might well be unavoidable.

Training for Windows 8 doesn't have to focus on touch use.

I noted above that the biggest changes in Windows 8.1 features are incremental and that, even without those changes, it's possible to make use of the system without touch. Training for Windows 8 (and 8.1) doesn't have to focus on getting users accustomed to touch; it can be about showing them how keyboard and mouse shortcuts cover the same territory, often more efficiently.

Enterprise trainers may have difficulty with the manufacturer-specific multi-finger gestures that some Windows 8 systems use on their touchpads rather than on their displays. There's a good deal less consistency among manufacturers for how multi-touch behavior works on touchpads, and some systems don't even have it at all. Consequently, any training for touch use should focus on what's native to Windows and not added by a manufacturer.

The changes to Windows 8.1 are not going to be massive enough to warrant holding out for the sake of a different training methodology. Much of what is learned with Windows 8 will still apply to Windows 8.1 features, with only the most modest of changes. What's more, the revised OS will be upon us swiftly enough that it scarcely hurts to be as far ahead of the game as possible.

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