Windows 7: Enterprise Game-Changer?

What does Windows 7 mean for enterprise IT organizations? A lot more than you might think.

First, there's the issue of maintenance. Redmond plans to pull the plug on Windows XP in 2014; ISVs are likely to do so sooner. Second, and perhaps just as important, IT shops won't have the option of purchasing XP preloaded on new client desktops. As of last month's Windows 7 launch, major OEMs were still offering XP downgrade packages for enterprise customers. Now that Windows 7 is shipping, OEMs will almost certainly start to phase out XP as a downgrade option for all but the heaviest hitters of enterprise customers.

While Windows 7 does support XP via XP Mode, this is a Band-Aid solution at best. XP has no future; Redmond no longer sells it via commercial channels (and now that Windows 7 is here, no longer needs to market it in the netbook segment, either) and isn't planning any additional service pack updates. Free support for XP SP2, which was released in September 2004, will end in July 2010. This means that XP customers who haven't yet upgraded to XP SP3, which shipped just 18 months ago, must first do so in order to continue to receive support through 2014.

There's also the issue of quality of support. Microsoft still offers paid support, but its free support programs -- i.e., the maintenance plans it offers through 2010 (for XP SP2) and 2014 (for XP SP3) -- are for critical security vulnerabilities only.

The not-so-surprising upshot is that Microsoft clearly expects fence-sitting enterprise IT shops to jump into Windows 7, either iteratively (via XP Mode or by means of other compatibility features) or in one giant leap. In this regard, a feature such as XP Mode, which Microsoft says is aimed at SMBs, merely helps grease the skids.

If that doesn't do it, XP's impending end-of-life certainly will.

April 2014 might seem like a long way off, but some experts, including Gartner, say enterprise shops should already be planning their Windows 7 rollouts.

"Microsoft will support Windows XP until April 2014, [but users should] plan to be off Windows XP by the end of 2012 to ensure ongoing support by independent software vendors for new applications," wrote Gartner analyst Stephen Kleynhaus in a recent research blast. ISVs, at least, are almost certainly planning to leave XP behind, Kleynhaus predicts.

"[W]e anticipate waning third-party support for XP beginning in late 2011 and accelerating through 2012," he wrote, adding that most shops will take at least 12 to 18 months to complete their migration efforts. "Organizations should therefore begin migration planning immediately to maximize their options and enable a controlled and cost-effective migration to Windows 7."

By all accounts, most IT shops intend to do just that.

According to a joint survey sponsored by market watcher Information Technology Intelligence Corp. (ITIC) and Sunbelt Software, for example, fully 60 percent of enterprise shops expect to adopt Windows 7. What's more, nearly half (49 percent) of organizations expect to move to Windows 7 over the next 12 months, while almost a third (30 percent) plan to upgrade over the next six months.

There was some worrisome news in the ITIC/Sunbelt survey, at least for Microsoft: A full 40 percent of respondents said they had "no definitive [Windows 7] migration timetable." That's a big section of the market, but it isn't surprising. More to the point, it's by no means a terminal tally.

If Windows 7 proves to be an enterprise success, it's a safe bet that many holdouts will ultimately take the plunge. There's plenty of pent-up demand, for one thing. Business buyers warmed very slowly to Windows Vista and, in a majority of cases, put off upgrading. Not all XP shops stayed put: According to Gartner, business adoption of Vista in 2007 and 2008 actually outpaced that of XP in 2002 and 2003.

So Vista wasn't completely shunned by business users.

On the other hand, XP Professional shipped less than two years after Windows 2000 Professional; Vista, by contrast, shipped more than five years after XP. In cases where Vista did not do well in a business setting, it appears to have left an extremely bitter aftertaste: 3 percent of respondents to the ITIC/Sunbelt survey said they weren't planning to move to Windows 7 because they "got burned by the Vista experience."

This time around, analysts concede, Redmond seems to have learned from its mistakes. Nevertheless, Vista holdouts are likely going to have at least some anxiety about moving to Windows 7.

"The majority of customers who elected to remain on Windows XP [instead of upgrading to Windows Vista] will have a more complex upgrade path," wrote ITIC's Laura DiDio, adding that "Microsoft has done a number of things to minimize the pain and complexity" for these users. She points to interoperability efforts such as Microsoft's Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT) and Application Compatibility Factory (ACF). Although these initiatives debuted with Vista, Microsoft was proactive about promoting their value ahead of Windows 7, DiDio said. She also applauds Redmond's efforts to better prepare ISVs, OEMs and resellers for Windows 7, chiefly via its "Ecosystem Readiness" program.

That said, DiDio stressed, Microsoft could do more.

Although shops that bought Microsoft Enterprise Agreement (EA) licenses or subscribed to Redmond's Software Assurance (SA) program are entitled to free Windows 7 upgrades, other business customers are out of luck.

Some business users, particularly in shops that upgraded (or tried to upgrade) to Vista, are extremely frustrated. She cites an ITIC interview with one recent Vista adopter, an IT manager with a not-for-profit agency of less than 100 end users, which made the move in the last 12 months; at the very least, this manager argued, Microsoft should offer shops like his a discounted upgrade path to Windows 7.

Another respondent, an IT manager with a large government organization, was more blunt: "For people that bought Vista, there should be a free upgrade to whichever version you want. We've suffered enough!"

DiDio, for one, is sympathetic to these concerns. Not only is it the right thing to do, she suggested, it makes for good PR, too. "[The] suggestion...that Microsoft give special price breaks to Vista customers has merit and Microsoft should consider doing it for at least a limited time as a goodwill gesture," she said. "This would serve to spur upgrades in the immediate and intermediate term, benefiting Microsoft customers and Microsoft itself. And it would also help to staunch defections to rival platforms, most notably the Apple Mac, which has been making modest gains in the enterprise at Microsoft's expense."


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