Did Microsoft Just Give Up on Windows 8 for Businesses?

Earlier this month, I looked at Windows 8 with fresh eyes, hoping to determine whether this curiously consumer-focused version of Windows made any sense for businesses. What I found, summarized in "Making the Business Case for Windows 8," surprised me somewhat. Once you get past the utter shock and horror that most IT pros feel about the touchy-feely new Metro environment, Windows 8, for businesses at least, is simply a logical evolution of the work Microsoft began with Windows 7, defined by a number of useful smaller features rather than a handful of major, seismic shifts.

Related: Windows 8 and Business Adoption (October 23, 2012)

For consumers, of course, Windows 8 is literally a “rebirth” of Windows, as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently stated, with an all-new, touch-centric, iPad-like interface grafted onto the Windows desktop. If this new system—which is either a Frankenstein-like disaster in the making or the genius kind of crazy—is successful, Microsoft will indeed have recast Windows for an entirely new range of devices. The software giant tries to act cool about this, as if it has been evolving Windows in this way since the beginning. But that’s not true. Yes, Windows has evolved over the years, of course it has. But it’s always evolved for PCs. Its new features and functionality have always mapped to the real (TCP/IP and Internet) or perceived (push web content) trends in hardware, software, and services that were happening in the broader industry at the time.

Until Windows 8, Microsoft’s core Windows product has only been designed for PCs. When Microsoft wanted to broaden its success with Windows into other device types, such as PDAs, hand-held computers, media players, video game consoles, online services, or whatever -- it wasn’t Windows that made the trip, it was Windows-like technologies, developer APIs, and end-user interfaces. Sometimes Microsoft branded this stuff with the name Windows, misunderstanding that most people’s experiences with Windows were at best neutral and were in fact more often negative. So we got such disparate products and services as Windows CE, Windows Live, and Windows Azure, none of which are really Windows.

Oddly, Microsoft didn’t always use (or abuse) the Windows brand for its core products. Its Xbox line of video game consoles was always well-respected, and with the second-generation Xbox 360 now an unprecedented seven years into its lifecycle and actually outselling the competition, it’s even doing well financially. But its Zune stable of devices, software, and services fared poorly thanks to consumer disinterest. Microsoft silently killed the hardware devices years ago and is now equally quietly killing the brand.

With Windows 8, everything is flipped upside down. Rather than attack the iPad and tablet market with yet another Windows derivative and thus another product -- such as a Windows Phone tablet or whatever -- Microsoft is instead pushing its core Windows product into this new market and, in the process, expanding the definition of the PC. But in doing so, it is also melding an amazing array of consumer-oriented mobile technologies directly into its core Windows product, a move that's dramatically more risky and forward-leaning than when the company did the same thing with Internet technologies and its web browser, Internet Explorer. Windows 8 is hard to categorize, since it has two personalities, or what we now cloyingly call “user experiences.” Genius or insanity? It’s not clear.

But this much is clear: Virtually all of the major new features in Windows 8 -- the new Windows Runtime, the Metro environment with its full-screen apps, and the all-new developer APIs that drive it all -- are derived solely from the mobile world and Microsoft’s experiences building Windows Phone for smartphones. Microsoft expects a significant percentage of Windows 8 users to touch their PCs and, now, devices, and not interact with them using traditional keyboards and mice.

Will any of them be business users?

Despite my recent attempt to categorize what’s coming in Windows 8 for businesses -- and, seriously, it’s not a bad list -- it’s become increasingly clear to me that Microsoft doesn’t actually expect businesses to upgrade to this new system in any meaningful way. I believe that the software giant is taking a pass on businesses for this release, a calculated risk that enables it to more firmly focus on the consumer market that's on the cusp of slipping through its fingers thanks to Apple and, to a much lesser extent, Android.

Two unrelated circumstances drove me to this conclusion.

The first is business adoption of Windows 7. While Microsoft has ever-lengthened its support lifecycles to accommodate the slow-moving business market, its business customers have responded in kind by not upgrading to newer versions of Windows in record numbers. But compared with Windows Vista, business adoption of Windows 7 has been excellent, and Microsoft now claims that up to 40 percent of all enterprise desktops are now running this OS version. Of course, that figure also suggests that up to 60 percent of all enterprise desktops are now running something else, that something else being Windows XP. I suspect that Windows 7 will simply be the next XP for businesses, the Windows version that's still being broadly deployed throughout Windows 8’s lifecycle and, perhaps, even Windows 9’s.

The second is Microsoft’s last-minute decision to destroy the Windows desktop and replace its user interface-- excuse me, “user experience” -- with one that (sort of but not really) resembles Metro. As I wrote in "Windows 8 Release Preview: RIP, Aero (2003-2012)," this move reeks of poor product management, especially when you consider that I’ve been told several times that a Microsoft goal for Windows 8 was that it could be easily deployed side by side with Windows 7 in businesses since the two (desktop) environments would be so similar. And they have been, so far. But with the Aero-based desktop giving way to a white, flat, and weird looking theme that, no, doesn’t look a thing like Metro, Microsoft is instead giving in to its consumer instincts with this release.

Related to this second point is information I’ve received that Microsoft has been furiously ripping out legacy code in Windows 8 that would have enabled third parties to bring back the Start button, Start Menu, and other software bits that could have made this new OS look and work like its predecessor. In fact, I’ve seen that several well-known UI hacks that worked fine with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview are no longer functional in the coming Release Preview. And those with hopes that Microsoft would allow businesses, at least, to boot directly to the desktop should prepare for disappointment. That feature not only isn’t happening, it’s being removed from Windows Server 2012 (Windows 8’s stable mate) as well.

Microsoft hasn’t made such an obviously consumer-centric version of Windows since Millennium Edition (Windows Me), and the question isn’t whether businesses will ignore this release, as they did Windows Vista. Of course they will. The question is whether Microsoft is (understandably) ignoring businesses with this release or if they’re being openly antagonistic to a market that, thus far, has been responsible for most of the software giant’s successes. Let’s hope it’s just the former.

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