Gartner: Windows 8.1 Could Be What Windows 8 'Should Have Been'

A report from Gartner released last week gives "preliminary" advice for organizations thinking about moving to Microsoft's newest desktop operating system.

The report, "Windows 8.1 Could Become What Windows 8.0 Should Have Been," suggests that the availability of touch-based devices shouldn't be a concern that would hold back Windows 8.1 deployments by organizations. Those organizations that have done some testing of the OS might consider deploying Windows 8.1 on new PCs as machines are replaced.

Organizations that have applications based on older Microsoft browsers, such as Internet Explorer 8, will have to test to see how those applications may be affected by a move to the new OS. With Windows 8.1, formerly code-named "Windows Blue," Microsoft has said it will deliver a new version of the browser, called "Internet Explorer 11." The new OS plus the new browser are expected to be available in a "customer preview" release next week, close to Microsoft's Build developer event.

Windows 8.1 Deployments in 2014?
Microsoft has previously described some details about Windows 8.1, which will restore some features such as the start button and boot-to-desktop capabilities, as well as wireless networking additions. However, much will depend on what's delivered at Build. Some problems cited by Windows 8 customers have been resolved with Windows 8.1, according to Michael Silver, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, and co-author of the report.

"So far, based on what we've seen and what we've seen in the market overall, Windows 8.1 looks like it should address most of the issues that people have had," Silver said in a phone call. "I wouldn't say that we'd recommend that every organization go run out and install it on all of their PCs, but the idea of installing it in on new PCs as they come in, I think it's more attractive with Windows 8.1. Add to the improvements in Windows 8.1 the likelihood that touch-based screens wouldn't significantly add to the cost of a notebook by the end of 2014, and 2014 starts to look like good year to start evaluating it and perhaps bringing it in on new devices."

Gartner's term for bringing in new Windows devices by attrition is called "managed diversity." Silver said that, with the managed diversity approach, "the trick is to make sure you pick the right OSes to land on and don't invest in more than two at a time." He said that Gartner doesn't expect to see Microsoft making many changes to the legacy (Win32) "Desktop" side of Windows 8 with the Windows 8.1 release.

Testing will be a big consideration, especially with Internet Explorer. Microsoft tends to deliver a new browser with each new Windows desktop OS release, and that can be a problem for organizations.

"Microsoft for years, since IE 8, has talked about the 'compatibility modes' built into new versions of IE to make them compatible with prior releases down to IE 7," Silver said. "But organizations still have problems, applications still have problems, so you really can't trust that your applications are going to work. Microsoft's insisting on putting a new version of IE in every new OS and not allowing the old version of IE to be run is going to be probably the biggest problem for organizations that want to adopt a new OS because that's going to require some testing and talking to your vendor and seeing if he'll support you if you have a problem on IE 11."

Migration Options
Gartner recommends that organizations still using Windows XP should move to Windows 7. The analyst and consulting firm sees Windows 7 as a secure and stable OS to use. Windows XP's extended support will run out in April of next year, so many organizations may not have enough time to complete all of the migration steps. And if Windows 7 deployment is not a consideration, Silver suggests considering Windows 8.1 because of Microsoft's fast-moving lifecycle.

"And how an organization that has basically done nothing with Windows 7 thinks they can deploy Windows 8 in the 42 weeks that are left between now and the end of Windows XP support, it's probably not going to happen," he said. "But, if you're talking about an organization that hasn't really started the migration, and says, 'No, we don't want to go to Windows 7, we want to go to Windows 8,' you may as well consider 8.1 because Windows 8.0 is going to be a relatively short-lived OS in terms of support, in terms of application support. ... And you can start using the preview version that will be available next week to do your testing and then plan to switch to the RTM version, which should be around in August or September, to do the deployment."

Microsoft so far hasn't disclosed exactly when Windows 8.1 will arrive. Downgrading Windows 8 to Windows 7 is also an option, but Silver suggested that sort of decision might be better made after Microsoft talks more about Windows 8.1 at Build.

More Frequent OS Releases
One thing that's clear is that Microsoft's newly accelerated product delivery schedule could pose problems for organizations. Possibly, a new Windows version could be released each year.

"Having a new version of Windows every year is really going to be a big problem for organizations because Microsoft is sort of banking on organizations trusting them enough to basically deploy the new version without a whole lot of testing, and that they won't need a lot of fixes for their applications," Silver said.

That trust doesn't run too deep. Silver recalled that today's patch management process in Windows shops arose in the 2002 to 2003 time period, which is when Windows XP had vulnerabilities that required a cycle of patch testing before deployment. For security patches, that situation may have changed, but OS upgrades are a different matter, Silver suggested.

"You know, Microsoft comes out with security fixes and most organizations don't do a whole lot of testing today," he said. "But it took them probably four, five or six years until they trusted Microsoft, that these security patches wouldn't break anything. For organizations to trust that a point release of Windows is not going to break anything, it's going to take a while of Microsoft proving that these point upgrades don't harm anything for organizations to really trust them because they [Microsoft] don't have any track record on that."

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.