For almost three decades, Microsoft Windows has ruled the oceans of business and consumer computing.
Windows 10, the latest iteration of the (literally) iconic operating system (OS), will start sailing off the shelves at the end of July. Its primary purpose is to unify the OS across PCs, tablets, smartphones and embedded systems, as well as Microsoft’s games console Xbox One, its new interactive whiteboard Surface Hub and its soon-to-arrive head-mounted 3D display HoloLens.
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Windows 10 offers the prospect of a shared application architecture across all these devices, and a common storefront in the form of the Windows Store.
Organisations adopting Windows 10 Enterprise edition, meanwhile, are promised an easier upgrade path than in the past, vastly improved mobile device management (MDM) capabilities, better security and simpler sign-on and authentication through the cloud-based Azure Active Directory (see Why upgrade to Windows 10 below).
But while most commentators agree Microsoft is moving in the right direction, will Windows 10 succeed in securing the company’s ambition of continued platform dominance in this multi-platform, multi-device age?
"As far as Microsoft’s nirvana of ‘Windows everywhere’ goes, I think the company has already missed the boat," says Dale Vile, distinguished analyst at Freeform Dynamics. "Most organisations are too far down the line with alternatives. Devices are the most volatile part of the IT equation and firms want to keep their options open."
But when you’re talking about process-centric applications rather than what phone the marketing manager wants to use, Vile says Microsoft has a strong story.
"With the cross-platform play, it can woo customers with the promise of being able to manage everything end-to-end. Customers have total flexibility in terms of which form-factor device they deploy to particular users without having to rewrite the application. That's undoubtedly going to be attractive to some users. You can’t do that in the Apple or Android worlds," he says.
The reality of BYOD
Microsoft, of course, recognises the reality that many organisations already follow a heterogeneous device strategy, particularly when it comes to BYOD, and it has sensibly decided to support Android and iOS devices with apps that allow people to hook into their enterprise Windows 10 systems. But for more advanced features, such as the shared application architecture, or having the Siri-like personal assistant Cortana fully integrated into their mobile interface, they’ll need Windows 10-based smartphones or tablets.
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We may yet see Microsoft become a dominant mobile device player, but for now the jury’s out. For enterprises, of course, the question is not how they help bolster the Redmond giant’s mobile ambitions, but whether it’s a sensible business decision to upgrade to Windows 10 as their primary desktop platform. Clive Longbottom, co-founder of analyst firm Quocirca, thinks the jury’s out on that one too.
"Take-up will probably be slow. Enterprises have grown wary after the disasters of Vista and Windows 8. They don't have a massive amount of trust in Microsoft saying that this is the greatest Windows ever – again," he says.
But he acknowledges the new OS does have serious attractions for some enterprise customers, including the aforementioned prospect of "run anywhere" applications, but also other operational improvements, such as the new model for updates and patches (which will see an end to the huge, bundled service packs of yore).
"Windows 10 is certainly a major move by Microsoft. It is a shift to continuous delivery of updates (no massive fork-lift upgrades in the future)," says Longbottom. "Then there’s the obvious stuff, such as the fact the security model underpinning it is far more modern; the fact it has been optimised for fast, consistent internet access with the new Edge browser, and so on. It deserves to do well, for sure, but whether Microsoft can persuade customers effectively of its merits is another matter. It has to get all those XP desktops migrated."
Clive Longbottom, Quocirca
Similarly, Scott Rundle, senior consultant at managed service provider Riverbank IT, believes the transition to Windows 10 is unlikely to be fast. "Initial take-up of the operating system will be slow as clients want to ensure a smooth transition to the new platform and there are so many factors to take into account – application compatibility, hardware compatibility, user training and support. These can all have a potential business impact which will need investigation and consideration before taking the leap."
Another issue that may stall adoption, according to Freeform Dynamics' Vile, is the learning curve for users. Although Windows 10 brings back the much-loved Start menu that Windows 8 was so criticised for ditching, the tile-based interface still predominates. And, for many users, the switch isn’t going to be easy, he says.
“A lot of people presumed the user interface was going to be sorted out with Windows 10, but from what I can see it’s a bit of a moving feast. It’s going to be a significant adjustment for some users – with all the ramifications for training and support that implies. You can’t just expect people to fall into using it,” he says.
Microsoft’s hope seems to be that Windows 10 will become pervasive in the consumer space, thus negating worries about user unfamiliarity and putting pressure on IT departments to adopt the same system people are using on their personal machines.
The vanilla version of the OS is free, which is likely to speed up adoption among consumers and device manufacturers. And clearly, features such as Xbox integration and devices such as HoloLens will, in the first instance, be primarily targeting the consumer gaming market. But Vile believes that in the longer term, HoloLens could also prove valuable to business customers. "Early versions are likely to be expensive and fairly clunky, but it has a lot of potential. I think it’s inevitable that kind of technology will work its way into the workplace, initially in high-value areas like the medical sector – for use in training and remote assistance, for example," he says.
Windows 10 in the enterprise
And while Microsoft’s control over enterprise operating platforms may not be as strong as it once was, Windows 10 is certainly an aggressive push to retain its dominance. There’s much to like about it, and plenty of potential.
As Riverbank’s Rundle notes: "As with any new release of Windows, it is an exciting yet challenging time for IT – ensuring business-critical applications continue to operate while at the same time taking care that businesses don’t fall behind the curve when it comes to utilising new and innovative technology."
Kevin Curran, a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and reader in computer science at Ulster University, says that as well as sporting a more user-friendly interface than Windows 8, Windows 10 Enterprise adds a host of features specifically aimed at encouraging business customers to upgrade. These include:
Simpler secure sign-on via Azure Active Directory
Users can now log into cloud-based services such as Office 365 or the Windows Store by just using their Active Directory credentials. It makes the process more seamless and is more akin to what the other giants are doing with a single login across multiple services.
Improved mobile device management (MDM)
MDM options which allow enterprises to manage bring-your-own-device (BYOD) hardware have been expanded to encompass corporate-owned devices. This will allow multiple users who share a single device to have full control over the Windows Store, VPN, device-wipe capabilities and configuration of enterprise data protection policies. Windows 10 now allows enrolling devices automatically into an MDM service for ongoing management. It also lets you separate personal and corporate data, which can be useful in heavy BYOD environments.
Greater control over updates
The frequency and criticality of the patches can be adjusted. This is to be welcomed. This element of control can still reside alongside the existing Windows Server Update Server (WSUS) service which allows customers to determine and control which patches are installed, and how often.
New runtime configuration tools
Enterprises can configure devices for business use without re-imaging. This eases tasks such as setting up wireless networks, VPNs, email profiles, enforcing security policies and installing apps, security updates and language packs.
This will handle single and volume purchases for employees and allow businesses to restrict which applications an employee can see. It offers flexible distribution options and licence management. We will also see universal applications that can run on a tablet or desktop.
For example, there’s a two-factor authentication feature which treats the device as one factor and a user PIN or biometric signature (such as a fingerprint) as the other. WindowsBitlocker has also been upgraded to extend the protection beyond the originating device, giving an additional layer of protection which follows data as it moves between devices and cloud/network locations.