If you have Oct. 26 highlighted on your calendar, you're probably either an IT professional, computer geek or technology reporter. That's when Microsoft debuts its much-ballyhooed rethink of the computer operating system, Windows 8. The company has released the final code to the original equipment manufacturers and they will flood the stores and Internet this autumn with a wave of new desktops, notebooks and tablets.
The big deal about Windows 8 from a user perspective is the touch interface it will provide for touch-enabled devices. It's also the key navigator for traditional mouse-and-keyboard users. That interface — known for 20 months as the Metro interface until a German retailer threatened litigation — has served as a lightning rod for critics, occasioning more than the usual weeping and wailing from the tech community. Others maintain that it will be the neatest thing since sliced bread for both business users and IT departments.
Falling into the latter category is Peter Lee, engagement manager and desktop deployment lead at SWC Technology Partners, an IT consultancy. Lee thinks Windows 8 is a computing metaphor whose time has come.
But he doesn't forecast a wholesale migration to the new platform. The more likely scenario is that businesses will opt for a hybrid approach that mixes Windows 8 advanced security and mobile device compatibility with existing Windows 7 installations, especially as businesses move more to the cloud, virtualization and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) models.
Lee has been working with Windows 8 since the developer preview was released in 2011.
Much of the criticism of the new interface, which Microsoft now describes as a "modern" design, has centered on its presentation of a menu of tiles in place of the start display that has become second nature to veteran Windows users.
The desktop is not going away
"The Metro interface is not going to be the entire operating system," Lee told BusinessNewsDaily. "When people see the Metro interface, they think it's going to replace the desktop. That's not the case. It's similar to an Android device or iPhone where you have that initial first page before you get to any of the other landing pages. The Metro is not going away and neither is the desktop. You're one screen away from the desktop. It actually makes it easier for people to get at their own apps."
As time goes by and users become comfortable with the new interface, they'll begin to tailor to their own usage patterns and preferred apps since the interface is completely customizable, Lee said. The source of so much initial pushback about the interface stems from fear of change, he said.
"People are really averse to change," Lee said. "In fact, people should be embracing this because it's the way they have been using Android and iPhones. It's what the consumer wants, but people are so afraid of change and they really associate Microsoft with the standard desktop."
Based on his extensive experience with the new operating system installed in all form factors — desktop, notebook and tablet — he believes that users will quickly adapt to Windows 8 and never look back.
Technologically savvy end users
"I think end users are just so much more technologically savvy than ever before," Lee said. "They've been using iPhones and iPads and Androids for so long, I don't think Windows 8 is going to be a hard adoption for them. What they're going to have to get used to is that they don't need to have two or three devices — one for work, one for home, one for play. They're going to have to get used to the idea that they can do everything from one device. And that will be — I don't want to call it a learning curve — a lifestyle curve."
Lee will be walking the walk himself in two weeks when he travels to Asia. In the past, he said, he would have carried both a tablet and a notebook. This time, he'll only pack one device.
"With Windows 8, I'll just be carrying one device," he said. "I can watch my movies, play my games and still get to work if I need to. It's going to be a lot more convenient."
Don't touch that
The biggest challenge for Windows 8 users will not be an operating system challenge, Lee said. It will be a device challenge as users make the move from keyboard-and-mouse to touch. That's where there will be a learning curve. Although touch is an intuitive interface for infants and children, it's counterintuitive to fingerprint averse "don't touch that" adults. It represents an imagination shift for adults.
"But that's a humongous shift," Lee said.
Because Windows 7 still has a lot of miles left in it, you won't see organizations that have already moved to that OS make a wholesale move to Windows 8, Lee said. More likely, desktop workers will continue with Windows 7 until their hardware needs replacement, at which point the enterprise will elect to migrate to Windows 8. Mobile workers, on the other hand, and those who want to take advantage of a touch interface will be migrated to Windows 8 sooner.
"The landscape has changed with Windows 8," he said. "It's going to run in a hybrid environment."
The economics are pretty compelling, Lee said. Windows 7 is only 45 percent of the marketplace. The old workhorse, Windows XP, still has half the pie.
"Windows 7 is working just fine," Lee said. "It's secure and able to do everything you need to do at work. There's not going to be a big push toward Windows 8 in an established Windows 7 environment."
A seamless system
For IT departments, the advent of Windows 8 as a corporate standard will let them retake some of the turf they ceded to consumerization. Because Windows 8 in its various flavors will encompass all devices from the immobile desktop to mobile tablets and even smartphones, IT will be able to offer devices with features that workers desire. It offers a seamless system.
"For IT departments, it's the whole concept of consumerization," Lee said. "It will be much easier to manage than when you had disparate consumer devices such as iPhones and Android."
The best way for IT departments to minimize maintenance and work and management is to simplify control, he said. By controlling that turf, they can hand out devices that are already customized the way they want so you don't have breeches of security. The adoption of Windows 8, he believes, can put the brakes on indiscriminate consumerization.
Bridging the gap
"We love the user having the luxury of bringing any device, but it's getting harder to manage," Lee said. "With that technology comes threats — viruses, malware. Windows 8 is going to simplify that. It bridges the gap between the enterprise and consumerization. It's a very fluid interface that allows IT to give a better user experience yet lock it in a way that they can still control of the system, the security and the maintenance."
This is not to say that moving to Windows 8 will be completely pain-free, Lee said. There's never been a seamless operating system migration; the next one will be the first one.
As with all things in the corporate calculus, it's not so much what you do as how you do it and how you communicate it. If you treat the migration to Windows 8 as an onerous exercise, that's what it will be.