Windows 8 - the eminently sensible product launch of the week

Despite all the hype about iPad minis, there’s no doubt the most significant product launch of the week for IT managers is the release of Windows 8.

Unlike Apple’s “top secret but with lots of leaks” approach to new products, we know pretty much everything there is to know about Windows 8 already.

We know that it’s going to confuse a lot of users with its attempt to combine a new touch-oriented interface with the conventional method.

We know it’s going to present challenges for software developers who now have the ARM-based Windows RT version for tablets to consider too.

And we know it is going to be scrutinised more than ever as to whether it is good enough to attract consumer sales away from the iPad as the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend continues in the workplace.

The big pitch

The big pitch for Windows 8 is promising, and hugely significant for Microsoft. This operating system is all about extending the Windows ecosystem to encompass everything from smartphones to tablets to PCs and on up to servers.

There’s no denying that is going to be an attractive option for IT managers looking to eliminate the complexity of multiple architectures and multiple environments. It’s an eminently sensible thing to do.

But while “eminently sensible” has been the underlying theme of Microsoft’s long track record in corporate IT, more is expected of our technology these days.

Does it matter to IT decision-makers that Microsoft is no longer cool? When it comes to return on investment and making the business case, almost certainly not.

But when it comes to meeting the heightened (if not always realistic) expectations of users and business executives, perhaps it does.

Arguably, it would be a more significant move if Microsoft were to release Office for iOS and Android, and also an Active Directory client for those tablet environments. Increasingly, the corporate commitment to Microsoft comes less from the Windows PC, and more from Windows Server, Active Directory, SharePoint and other back-office infrastructure software – and from the integration between Office and those products. What serious alternatives to Windows Server are there, for example?

As browser-based applications become increasingly the norm for businesses, the user operating system is less important. Even Office is becoming increasingly cloud-based.

Microsoft is betting its future on the fact that users might not be enthused about Windows on a tablet, but at least will be comfortable with it if driven in that direction by the IT department.

Skimming the Surface

There are big question marks over the depth of Microsoft’s commitment to its Surface tablet – for a start, it’s only available online or in a Microsoft store (when was the last time you saw one of them?) There’s no mass market distribution strategy for the product, and Microsoft has to tread a fine line between encouraging its hardware partners to make Windows 8 tablets of their own and pushing Surface. Surely if there was an aggressive plan to make Surface a real rival to the iPad, Microsoft would be exploiting its established retail distribution channels for the Xbox?

You can see that companies that look to tablets for line-of-business applications are going to tend towards Surface or its Windows 8 alternatives. In areas like healthcare, education, field sales and others, the integration with the corporate environment is a winner, and users would not expect such devices to be used in their personal life.

But for the general purpose user computing environment, where employees increasingly want to have a dual-use machine that is also their personal device, they are still going to be more likely to opt for Apple or Android, and less likely to be swayed by an IT manager telling them it’s better for the company if they choose Windows.

And of course, let’s not forget that most corporate IT is still moving from XP to Windows 7 – a major migration to 8 is some time away, and by that time the proliferation of other tablets in the workplace will have grown.

The other things

Microsoft will continue to bluster and hyperbole about Surface – “There’s nothing like Microsoft Surface on the market today,” CEO Steve Ballmer told the BBC. “The other things have a purpose but they’re nothing like the Surface.”

The “other things” seem to be doing OK though, and at best Windows 8 will be the number three tablet and smartphone operating system in a market that already has two dominant players.

Apple and Android are not going to kill Microsoft. The Redmond giant isn’t going away from the corporate market. But over the next few years, it’s less likely that Windows 8, for all its cross-platform standardisation, is going to be the core of Microsoft’s success in business. Microsoft’s future area of dominance is increasingly going to be back-office based.

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