Why IT shops might skip the tablet-focused Windows 8

ANAHEIM, CALIF. – Microsoft Corp. is trying to offer the best of both worlds with its new Windows 8 OS, but it looks like it may end up giving enterprise IT shops the worst of two form factors.

The company’s new start screen was created to address both the company’s lack of a touch-based OS and to visually connect its desktop and tablet OS with Windows Phone 7. The new Windows 8 OS is the first attempt by Microsoft to bring together desktop and mobile computing under one roof.

Working my way through the developer preview copy given out at this week’s Microsoft BUILD conference, it is completely evident that Microsoft’s new tile UI is not some optional overlay getting in the way of using the classic desktop view. The tile-based UI is definitely interconnected with the traditional Windows 7 desktop and using one or the other will be unavoidable.

That means all users running Windows 8 will be stuck with the new look.

But here’s the problem at this stage: the merged interface feel a bit unnatural.

The tile interface feels awkward and forced with the mouse and keyboard, but when used with touch, the screen is as “fast and fluid” as Microsoft claims. The same problem arises when trying to use touch in the classic desktop view, especially when you’re dealing with the option-filled ribbon that Microsoft has added to the folder box. 

“A monitor without touch is dead,” said Jensen Harris, director of product management for the Windows User Experience. “But that doesn’t mean mouse and keyboards are going anywhere.”

Just like that quote suggests, the current state of Windows 8 seems a bit conflicted.

Because of how perfect the new start UI feels on a tablet, I’m really questioning why Microsoft needed to merge the desktop OS and tablet OS in the first place.

For a Microsoft tablet OS to work, Windows has to fade into the background and put the spotlight completely on the app and the content. It does that beautifully with its Metro-styled tile screen. But for many basic functions like taking a detailed Control Panel view or killing an app in Task Manager, users will be reverted back to the desktop view.

The new interface will not only put developers at a crossroads, as they decide whether or not to stick to creating traditional desktop apps versus completely revamping their software to the new Metro UI, but it will also put businesses in a touchy situation.

The new OS offers little for organizations using mostly non-touch laptops and desktop PCs at a time when many IT shops have just recently made the switch to Windows 7. Unless your organization is looking to fully embrace tablets in a secure way, there could be little value in upgrading to Windows 8.

And what about Microsoft’s app sharing push?

While the idea of auto-syncing your e-mails, settings and data between multiple computers is brilliant for a consumer user, I’m not so sure enterprises will be thrilled about this functionality.  I imagine that Microsoft will provide ways for IT administrators to manage these sharing features, but with so much of the OS revolving around Web apps and data sharing, this seems to defeat the purpose of adopting the OS.

During this week’s conference, Microsoft announced that it has almost surpassed 450 million copies sold of Windows 7, with the OS finally surpassing XP in consumer usage. 

Despite the fact that IT staff would kill to get a hold of a the lighting fast boot speed, my prediction is that large companies will play it safe and hang on to Windows 7 for many years to come.

By Microsoft’s own declaration, Windows 8 is a “touch first” OS that will be a risky proposition for enterprises that do not want to break the current experience their users have on the desktop.

For example, if an IT shop is developing a custom app for Windows 8 compatible, it will now have to ensure that the app works across two very different form factors.

With Windows 8, Microsoft has shown that it can create a killer tablet OS. But letting it standalone on its own would certainly provide consumers a better user experience, and ensure enterprise IT customers get fewer headaches in the future.

IT departments would certainly welcome the ability to manage tablets and desktop PCs under the same management platform, but that is a very different proposition than actually merging the two under the same set of apps and UI.

If Apple has shown anything with its iPad, it’s that a tablet can be a business tool without sharing the same UI or underlying architecture as a desktop OS.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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