There is a lot of talk about why people love or hate Windows 8, but I see a lot of talk about this from the perspective of the IT department and the big picture seems to be often dropped completely. Overall, Windows 8 is a great operating system delivering a lot of cool, new features and building on the Windows Vista legacy (and, in turn, on the Windows 7 legacy.) We have a stable, mature kernel and a lot of new efficiency in the system itself.
To really look at Windows 8 we need to look at the historic value of Windows as a desktop operation system. For many years, even as far back as the late 1990s, Windows has competed against other desktop options on two fundamental premises. The first premise is that moving to the next version of Windows is less disruptive and requires less retraining of staff than moving to a competitive platform allowing the majority of end users to remain comfortable and efficient even when going through major desktop upgrades. The second is that the majority of business applications are written for Windows and moving to another platform severely limits application options.
Windows provides ancillary benefits of course such as a tight security model, well known support processes, massive user community, IT departments well versed in supporting it, excellent training and certification programs and good change processes. But to a business selecting its next computing platform, continuity of usability and application support are the features traditionally driving the almost blind adoption of subsequent Windows versions year after year.
What makes Windows 8 unique in the long history of Windows desktop operating environments is that for the very first time even since the Windows 3.1 days there is a major change in the look, feel and usability of the desktop environment leaving many users stranded and confused in extreme cases and at least, in most cases, inefficient and frustrated. Windows has never before departed from the basic need to make sure that users felt as little pain moving from version to version before and the need for retraining was basically out of the question beyond quick highlights showing where something has moved or showing off new features. Windows 95 was the most extreme change of the past ~20+ years of Windows desktops and compared to Windows 8 it was relatively trivial.
With Windows 8 the move to the latest Windows edition is so dramatic that it begs comparison to the competition. It is not that Windows 8 is bad, it is quite good, but that it doesn’t delivery the traditional Windows desktop upgrade value proposition either in user experience or in being a unique application platform as the majority of modern business applications are desktop platform agnostic running in the web browser leaving Windows in a very precarious position. There are Linux desktops, for example, that offer user experiences far closer to Windows 7 than Windows 8 offers. This, combined with the widespread use of enterprise web-based applications, means that, in theory, Windows 8 is no longer the simple upgrade path for desktops but it, in fact, the more difficult option requiring more training, more time and more pain for users and, from what we have seen, more long term loss of productivity as Windows 8 simply lacks the end-user efficiencies of most non-Windows platforms (Linux, Mac OSX and BSD.)
I’ve heard many people attempt to defend Windows but but the defense seems, to me, to be universally centered around mitigating Windows 8 flaws rather than finding places where it excels. That users should not avoid it because they “haven’t taken time to learn how to deal with it”, that users should learn “keyboard shortcuts to make up for GUI deficiencies”, that they should “work hard to customize the Metro interface to make it less painful” or that “users should remove and/or replace troublesome Windows applications with more functional third party components” all, to me, sound like failures of the platform rather than reasons why Windows 8 is a good choice. Yes, Windows 8 can certainly be made to be functional. But Mac OSX or Linux Mint, as examples, solve all of these issues out of the box. Users can hit the ground running and remain productive in the future.
From an IT support perspective there is a lot of pressure to maintain a status quo. While Windows 8 is a departure it does not represent any significant change from supporting past Windows versions. The tools and techniques are the same. The set of experience and skills acquired for many years can be leveraged against Windows 8 and everyone comes to Windows 8 fresh so if there are new skills to be learned existing Windows desktop administrators and supporters are in the best position to learn them first. Windows 8 continues to be the best job retention gamble and leverages best the in place support teams. Moving to any new platform means that completely new skills and approaches need to be learned, new vendors need to be engaged and the risk of large portions of the department being replaced with outsides already possessing those skills looms large.
For end users, though, pressures might be the opposite. IT needs to keep perspective that IT is not the end user of technology but the supplier of it. The business and the business users are the end users of technology and it is the role of the IT department to support those needs. If Windows 8 fails to deliver business value in comparison to competing options then it is IT’s job to deliver alternatives even if that means retraining for IT in order to make the business run more smoothly and more cost effectively.
When we step back and do a business by business analysis, Windows 8 is going to continue to dominate, there is no question. But a shift is clear, Windows desktops are no longer the clear and obvious choice for end user easy of use and continued efficiency. Microsoft is playing a dangerous game of alienating those whom they have courted for the longest. Users looking for an easy transition will have to think twice about Windows 8 and the future of the Windows desktop. Windows is already suffering from having lost the mobile and tablet space to the iOS and Android camps and has seen heavy market attrition in netbooks to Linux and the traditional desktop and laptop space to Mac OSX. Windows’ areas of market dominance are growing fewer and those remaining are shrinking. Ten years ago running a company without Windows on the desktop was unthinkable. Today it is a very real consideration and both Mac OSX and many Linux distros have an opportunity to go through one or even several iterations before Windows 8’s replacement OS arrives from Microsoft giving them time to polish, advance and attract users who will be considering the Windows 8 move over the next few years.
Windows 8 fails to continue providing the Windows desktop’s traditional value. Windows 8 fails to deliver new benefits to justify it on its own right. Windows 8 fails to convince users and businesses of Microsoft long term vision.