The shift to the Metro interface in Windows 8 means a radical change to the way you interact with your computer. That can be challenging enough on the individual level, but it represents an even bigger issue for business users and IT managers facing the prospect of retraining large groups of users and rebuilding business applications. The end result? It will be a long, slow move to Windows 8 for larger organisations.
In a recent research paper, analyst firm Gartner examined how Windows 8 will fit into typical enterprise computing scenarios. It points out that while the visible shift to Metro will itself represent a major challenge, it's the change to the underlying WinRT programming model from the current Win32 approach that is more significant in the long run:
Windows 8 is more than a major new version of Windows. WinRT is a new platform designed to keep Microsoft relevant in a future that will be dominated by mobile devices. Microsoft will position WinRT as its strategic platform for new development, but most users will continue to run Win32 applications for 10 or more years.
Making that transition is tricky for Microsoft. It wants to ensure that its platforms remain relevant and look modern, but it also needs to ensure that existing apps can run effectively. That's being done by combining the new Metro interface with the legacy Desktop environment in Windows 8, but that has created an inconsistent interface:
Windows 8's current integration of the two environments (Windows Metro and Windows Desktop) is jarring and will need to evolve before significant adoption beyond stand-alone tablets will happen in enterprises. We believe the quirks of the current Windows 8 UX will be ironed out over the next few years. Microsoft's problem is that Windows 8 will need to be good enough when it ships, because Microsoft is already late and doesn't have a few more years.
Consumer-centric systems such as the Windows Store could also potentially alter purchasing arrangements for businesses. Microsoft hasn't yet revealed any plans to allow bulk licensing via the Store, and it seems likely that the current models of direct purchases by IT departments will continue. However, using the Store does pose significant challenges for enterprise management tools, as Gartner's analysis points out:
It is uncertain how current management tools will work with WinRT. The sandbox architecture prevents a single application from maintaining the system image of a device, because that would be a gross violation of the new architecture. The application store model implies that management will be more pull-based than push-based, changing the basic endpoint management approach of most enterprises, at least on Windows RT devices.
Given all those factors, Gartner predicts that it will be at least 10 years before most organisations actually make the shift onto Windows 8 in large numbers. That's not impossible to believe: just look at all those Windows XP deployments that are still active 11 years after the software first appeared.
It's not uncommon for businesses to skip an entire Windows generation. For companies running Windows 7, Gartner suggests that the successor to Windows 8 is likely to appear by 2014, which fits comfortably within the typical three-to-five year lifecycle for workplace computers (if they have been recently upgraded). So while consumers may race to buy Windows 8 devices this year, business will be waiting a lot longer.
Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.