There is lots to consider. Windows 7 has a solid track record, but Windows 8 offers new and improved features like Secure Boot security and Windows To Go portability. One thing is certain. Whether they choose Windows 7 or Windows 8, enterprises need to get off XP as quickly as possible. Microsoft will discontinue support for the decade-old OS in 2014.
"Paying Microsoft for Windows XP support after [formal] support ends is going to get expensive," said Gartner analyst Mike Silver.
Silver, along with most experts, users, and even Microsoft itself believe that the most prudent upgrade path for enterprises is to move from XP to Windows 7 on corporate desktops, while allowing road warriors the freedom to use Windows 8 Professional on tablets.
"Windows 7 has been shipping for three years," said Silver. "It's mature, the vendors support it, there are lots of good skills for Windows 7. A company that has made little or no progress on Windows 7 over the past three years is highly unlikely to be able to take a brand new operating system and deploy it for all users before XP support ends."
[ Here is one reason to consider Windows 8. Read Windows 8 Beats The Mac, Appsolutely. ]
Moving from XP to Windows 8 would also burden users--and help desks--with additional training requirements. Windows 8 represents the biggest overhaul of Windows since Windows 95. It dispenses with familiar tools like the Start menu, in favor of the Live Tiles interface and Modern UI. Windows 8 offers the option to run the more familiar Windows Explorer desktop, but even that contains significant changes from previous versions.
XP to Windows 7 is, in fact, the path that the vast majority of enterprises has taken, or will take. Silver estimated that 20% to 30% of large companies have completed the transition to Windows 7, while 60% are "well underway." A survey conducted in September by ThinkEquity LLC found that 37% of enterprises are fully on Windows 7, while 45% are in the process of upgrading. A recent InformationWeek survey of IT pros found that 47% have no plans to upgrade to Windows 8, while 64% will stick with Windows 7 for as long as possible.
"We're not looking to jump the gun on Windows 8," said Jeremy Mlazovsky, IT director for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Dayton. Mlazovsky manages about 800 faculty and staff Windows PCs at the school, and most have been upgraded from XP to Windows 7.
His concern about Windows 8 is that key security and networking tools won't be available for the OS at launch. "One thing that will determine when we move to Windows 8 will be when a lot of the third-party software that we rely on will be ready," said Mlazovsky. He cited Novell's iPrint and other apps as examples of key software that lacks Windows 8 support. "We're a Novell shop," he said.