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In-Depth

Getting Ready for Windows 8

In many ways, the channel is eagerly waiting for Microsoft to catch up to the market with its next OS. Will customers stand still long enough for the new OS to catch on?

As early as January, touchscreens from a dozen all-in-one desktops lit up a Best Buy aisle in Maryland. A display poster tied together the systems from Dell Inc., Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Lenovo, Samsung and Toshiba with a listing of benefits. It mentioned touchscreen simplicity, clearing clutter, networking made easy and big screen plus big sound.

Missing from the benefits list was any indication that these systems might position their buyers well for a Windows 8 upgrade. In the Windows 7 to Windows 8 desktop transition, touchscreen capability goes from a gimmicky add-on to the main method of user interaction.

It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say these systems could run Windows 8. Months earlier a technical preview of the OS had been demonstrated running very well on a Windows Vista-generation laptop, and developers were assured that a key design principle was that no new hardware would be required.

But for Best Buy and the OEMs to promote the systems as Windows 8 "ready" or "capable" would require official sanction and some sort of sticker from Microsoft. Four months later, no such sticker exists.

Meanwhile, around the world over the last year, Microsoft partners by the thousands have engaged customers curious about integrating Apple iPads -- and, to a lesser extent, Android tablets -- into their business processes.

"Over the last few years, there's been a deliberate approach to prepare all of the relevant communities."

Peter Han, Vice President, U.S. OEM, Microsoft

With all this channel eagerness, Microsoft's core message has been, in effect, "We're on our way with Windows 8, but we can't say exactly when. While you're waiting, deploy some Windows 7 to get ready for Windows 8."

A core problem with this message is that the main thing business customers seem to want from Microsoft in the Windows 8 generation is some kind of corporate-friendly version of the iPad, and no one outside Microsoft and the OEMs' labs knows for sure what the new tablet hardware will look like. Who's going to want to upgrade to Windows 7 right now with no guarantees that the current hardware is ready for Windows 8 -- and no idea what the eventual Windows 8-approved hardware will be?

Preparing the Ecosystem
Meeting in a demonstration lab in the Microsoft New York offices a few months ago, Microsoft Vice President for U.S. OEM Peter Han provided a more nuanced answer. With the facility of someone who used to earn his paycheck forecasting global PC sales for Microsoft, Han ticked off some numbers.

"Two-hundred-seventy-five million is the total U.S. installed base of Windows systems. One-hundred-twenty-four million in the U.S. installed base are running Windows XP. Nearly half are still running that 10-year-old operating system," Han said. With support deadlines for Windows XP, he added, "We feel extra urgency now. There's an opportunity for partners to go convert. Transitioning will be more difficult as you get into that Windows 8 time frame."

Asked about the partner challenge given hardware-readiness issues, Han first noted that Microsoft has been working extremely closely with partners throughout the Windows 8 development cycle. "We pay a lot of attention to our ecosystem," Han said. "Over the last few years, there's been a deliberate approach to prepare all of the relevant communities." He cited the ARM architecture announcements in January 2011, the Computex demo of Windows 8 a year ago and the BUILD conference in September.

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Acknowledging that Microsoft hadn't communicated a specific date for a sticker, Han said: "We're aware of that need with the ecosystem."

At the same time, Han demurred on the importance of the hardware-readiness question. The bigger issue for migration projects starting now is application compatibility, which comes well before hardware rollouts, especially in midmarket and enterprise rollouts. On this count, the message of "migrate to Windows 7 now for Windows 8 readiness later" makes perfect sense.

"Application compatibility between Windows 7 and Windows 8 is going to be complete," Han said.

Migration Plans
For partners with lengthy Windows desktop migration experience, that nuanced messaging resonates. Planet Technologies, a Washington, D.C.-based Microsoft National Systems Integrator, has already held customer webinars on migrating to Windows 7 to prepare for Windows 8.

"I think for large-scale organizations, they're not going to be replacing all their machines with touchscreen monitors in one night anyway," says Jason Malnar, a technical architect in systems management for Planet Technologies. "You probably are rolling out Windows 8 for another six or nine months before you start rolling it out on desktops."

Malnar has been encouraging clients to start moving away from Windows XP in some fashion. "The organizations that are still on Windows XP have really got to start putting the pedal down before full support ends. They've got to get off Windows XP or they'll be three operating systems behind," he says.

As always with desktop migrations, application compatibility is going to be the biggest hurdle, Malnar says. While the new interface will take getting used to, under the hood it's very similar to Windows 7 for applications and administrative functionality.

"Windows 8 looks like a really different operating system, but it's actually really similar. If you're familiar with Windows 7 you're going to be good to go when Windows 8 comes out [on the IT side]," Malnar says.

In many ways, Malnar is more excited about guiding customers to some of the iterative improvements of Windows 8 -- underrated Windows 7 technologies that are improved in Windows 8. "People are starting to jump on the bandwagon of all the features that Windows 7 has to offer," says Malnar, citing App-V, DirectAccess, BitLocker, Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization, or MED-V, and other technologies.

Talking Tablets
Just as the technical disruption of the Windows 8 release may be less dramatic than it appears, the speed of Windows 8 adoption may be somewhat illusory at first.

Al Gillen, the longtime OS analyst for market research firm IDC, says Windows 8 licensing momentum will appear extremely rapid, but the OS's actual progress will be slower and hard to measure.

IDC is anticipating gold code for Windows 8 and Windows Runtime, or WinRT (the newly announced name for the ARM version targeted at consumers), in August for a holiday 2012 rollout. On the consumer side, come the rollout date, it's pretty much a bit switch. Every new PC will go out with Windows 8, whether consumers want it or not. On the enterprise side, every sale will be logged as a Windows 8 shipment, but Gillen says downgrade rights -- buying the Windows 8 license but installing the Windows 7 OS -- should be a major factor, as with many previous Windows releases.

"We expect most business customers that get PCs in the next 12-18 months will probably downgrade them," Gillen says.

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For business customers that don't begin their migrations with Windows 8 in mind, Windows 7 is likely to be a sticky OS on the desktop. "We had predicted that Windows 7 was going to be the Windows XP of the next decade, with an eight-to-10-year lifecycle. Customers who move to Windows 7 are unlikely to move their traditional desktops," Gillen says.

With limitations in the Metro UI, such as two-window-only multitasking, business users may be unlikely to want their desktop PCs to run Windows 8. "I do believe that Microsoft will improve those issues as they go through the process, but it may take until Windows [8's follow-up OS]," Gillen says.

Where IDC sees the best opportunity for Microsoft is in the x86-based tablets targeted at business users. "By using an x86 device, the Windows 8 tablets are, in effect, full PC environments in a different form factor. Once you dock that tablet into some sort of docking station, you can in theory convert that tablet experience into a traditional PC experience. In that respect, the Windows 8 tablets on x86 are very different creatures than ARM tablets are," Gillen says.

Gillen also notes that organizations under pressure to deliver mobile solutions face application nightmares with iPads and Android-based tablets, because they need two sets of applications and two sets of management technologies.

"That piece of the market is Microsoft's to lose. If they can come forward with a good solution with their partners, that's an entry point that I see for Windows 8," Gillen explains.

The ARM, or WinRT, tablets face a fuzzier future. The x86 Windows 8 tablets will depend for their compatibility on the desktop "app" that lets users run a traditional Windows desktop with multiple application windows and non-Metro-style apps. The WinRT tablets will only run new Metro apps.

"Microsoft is really starting with a blank sheet of paper on the ARM-based devices. They don't have any install base, they don't have any applications," Gillen says. For the WinRT tablets to succeed, one requirement is that application developers will have to fill Microsoft's store with alluring apps.

"Among application development shops, the enthusiasm for Windows [8/WinRT] is not overwhelming. This is not a new phenomenon. That's been Microsoft's problem for much of the last decade. Disruptive change takes longer than Microsoft expects for it to, or hopes for it to," Gillen says, citing some of the Windows Vista changes and the lengthy adoption curve for Windows 2000 Active Directory.

The Pricing Problem
Any momentum for new Windows-based tablets appears to be highly dependent on one other factor -- price.

"It seems some of the mainstream Android vendors are finally beginning to grasp a fact that Amazon, [Barnes & Noble] and Pandigital figured out early on: Namely, to compete in the media tablet market with Apple, they must offer their products at notably lower price points," IDC analyst Tom Mainelli said in a statement last month.

IDC went on to extend that lesson to Windows 8, and especially WinRT, in the text of its research news release: "The impact that Microsoft Windows 8- and Windows RT-based tablets ... will have on the overall tablet market is yet to be determined. Pricing on the new Windows tablets hasn't been announced, and that will be a critical factor when it comes to winning over consumers."

The emerging opinion in tech business circles seems to be that if Microsoft and its OEM partners can't deliver both ARM and x86 tablets for less than the price of comparable iPads, the products will be in trouble.

For all the challenges, customers do seem excited about the possibilities of the Microsoft ecosystem on tablets. "I carry my slate around and it has Windows 8 on it," says Planet Technologies' Malnar. "Everybody is aware of [Windows 8] and everybody is looking forward to it."

Even with that enthusiasm, the new platform's market adoption is likely to be somewhat plodding in the manner of previous Windows releases, and complicated by the many unique facets of Windows 8 and WinRT. The open question is whether the OS market, which has been more prone to disruption in the last few years than at any time in the last 20 years, will wait on Microsoft's stodgy product-rollout timetable.

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