What does Windows 8 mean for business?

At the beginning of September, Microsoft gave a public demonstration of Windows 8, the next version of its operating system. Given the dominant position of Windows, news of a new version is a big deal – not just for Microsoft, but for IT managers and company owners, who will have to decide whether to upgrade when the software is released in a year or so.

A chequered history

Microsoft has a somewhat chequered history when it comes to Windows releases. Windows 7 – the current version – is widely regarded as stable and secure by businesses that use it. However, many companies are still soldering on with Windows XP, a ten-year-old operating system. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Indeed, it’s only now Windows 7 has time to prove itself that many companies can see a business case for upgrading. And with Windows 7 perceived as the ‘safe’ choice, Microsoft is going to have to build a strong argument to convince companies to jump to Windows 8 instead.

An all-new interface

Building that case will be harder now the company has confirmed that Windows 8 uses an entirely new interface. In a risky decision, Microsoft has pushed the familiar desktop out of the way, replacing it with a system called Metro.

Metro has been designed for devices with touch screens, like tablet PCs, as well as for more traditional PCs. The ambition is admirable, but it does mean Windows 8 is a bold departure from what people are used to.

When you load up Windows 8, you’ll see a set of live ‘tiles’. These can show you important information immediately (like your unread emails), but you can also flick between tiles, or tap them to launch apps.

So far, it sounds fine – as long as you’re using a device with a touch screen. If not (as will be the case for most business users), it’s tricky to see what advantages this will offer over the standard desktop.

The desktop is still there

In fact, it seems likely that most companies will prefer to stick with the familiar desktop, which will remain available in Windows 8. There are a few surprises here too though. The most striking is that Microsoft has opted to incorporate the Microsoft Office-style ‘ribbon’.

This move is bound to divide opinion. The software giant claims the ribbon makes important commands obvious, helps people find the options they need, and provides consistency across their applications.

However, any IT managers who had to cope with disgruntled users when the ribbon was introduced to Microsoft Office will feel a headache coming on at the prospect of going through it again. One blogger has dissected the rationale behind the move, and it’s doesn’t make for pretty reading.

Are there any advantages?

Of course, it’s early days for Windows 8. Microsoft is promising lots of other improvements, which should come to light between now and the software’s release. Certainly, it will use fewer system resources than Windows 7, so should run faster on existing hardware.

But will there be enough to encourage businesses to switch to Windows 8? With over a year until the release, it’s difficult to be sure. But at first glance, it’s hard to see a compelling argument.

At least to begin with, there will be too many unknowns to make Windows 8 an overwhelmingly attractive proposition. Will users be able to cope with the interface changes? Will the upgrade process go smoothly? (Remember Windows Vista?)

Companies that need to upgrade from Windows XP are much more likely to jump to Windows 7; it’s been proven in the real-world and the upgrade path is well-established. Those already using Windows 7 can simply sit tight while they wait and see how Windows 8 fares in its first months.

The long game

In the longer term, it’s very possible that Microsoft’s big gamble will pay off. If touch screens become standard on PCs and tablet adoption grows, that new interface will make a whole lot of sense. In five years’ time, perhaps we’ll all be using Metro and the desktop will be dead.

But big changes always create problems. If you’re a company trying hard to balance the books and work efficiently in a tough economy, the twin distractions of Metro and the ribbon might be the last things you need, at least in the short term.

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Jonathan Edwards is MD and founder of Integral IT, a preferred IT support partner to many UK businesses. Jonathan has been working in the IT support industry since 1996 and is a Microsoft Certified Professional. He is actively involved with all aspects of client relationships and ensures Integral's IT support is of the highest quality possible.