Is Windows 8 Too Risky For IT?

Microsoft's new OS may be just too different for conservative IT departments, Gartner says. But here's why I'm not counting Windows 8 out--even in the near term.
8 Key Differences Between Windows 8 And Windows RT
8 Key Differences Between Windows 8 And Windows RT
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Microsoft next month will launch Windows 8, the most radically redesigned version of its franchise OS since Windows 95, which brought stalwart features like the Task Bar and Start button to the desktop. Going full circle, Windows 8 dispenses with Start, while introducing many other changes. There's lots to like about it, but is it all too much for inherently conservative IT departments?

Gartner, in a research note this week, postulated that it just might be. "Making radical changes to Windows poses a risk for Microsoft as organizations like to reduce technology risk by deploying mature, stable, well-supported products," the firm said.

Proof? Gartner points to Windows Vista, which added a slew of new features, such as Aero Glass (gone from Windows 8), and intrusive security warnings (also gone), that were mercilessly pilloried in Apple ads.

The result: Vista at its peak level of deployment could only be found on 8% enterprise PCs, according to Gartner.

Does a similar fate await Windows 8? Maybe. The additional burden on help desks that the new Metro interface would inevitably create might alone be enough for CIOs to order their desktop managers to shun Windows 8. Presented with blocky Live Tiles rather than the familiar Start button and Windows Explorer, employees doubtless will be reaching for the help line the first time they boot Windows 8.

[ There are many questions when it comes to deciding on a new desktop OS, including: Why Are We Still Buying Desktop OSes, Anyway? ]

Forcing users to go Metro "is probably the most controversial decision Microsoft has made in Windows 8," said Gartner.

Windows 8 also threatens to spark more BYOD chaos. It adds not one, but two new platforms that IT departments will have to manage--and adds them to a growing list that also includes iPads, Blackberrys, Androids, and even e-Readers like Kindle HD.

Why two? Most users will opt for tablets running Windows 8 Professional so they can keep their existing apps and services. But some will choose Windows 8 RT tablets. Built for mobility, they promise longer battery life and light form factors, but they won't run existing Windows apps.

Microsoft has also warned that Windows RT devices won't be compatible with its full suite of back-end management and security tools.

So is Windows 8 DOA in the enterprise? Not so fast. IT organizations typically don't start to seriously look at a new Microsoft OS until it's been in the field for at least a couple of years. About 64% of respondents to a recent InformationWeek survey said that their future OS strategy involves "hanging on to Windows 7 as long as possible." A full 20% said they will stick with Windows XP, which Microsoft intends to discontinue support for in 2014, until the bitter end.

Having said that, I'm not counting out Windows 8--even in the near term. To be sure, it's a radical departure from previous Windows, and that may be off putting for some CIOs. But the changes also include a slew of valuable new tools not to be found in XP, Vista, or even Windows 7.

There's Secure Boot, a process designed to prevent malware from infecting computers during startup, even before Windows and all of its built-in safeguards are launched. It works by confirming that all components have the appropriate security certificates before they are allowed to launch. Secure Boot requires UEFI BIOS to run, which is only found on the newest PCs.

For companies that hire lots of consultants, contractors, and other temps, and need to give such personnel access to a corporate desktop image and apps without granting full server permissions, there's Windows To Go. It lets users boot a preconfigured, IT-certified Windows 8 image onto any laptop from a USB. It also lets them boot up a Windows 8 image on a Windows 7 PC.

File management is vastly improved: A new interface box gives users a combined view of all concurrently running copy jobs. It shows which jobs are running, lists the file source and destination for each, and shows what percentage is complete. Another new feature lets users manage each job separately. Any job underway can be paused, resumed, or canceled independently of the others. That could be a boon to publishers, law firms, and other businesses that deal with large volumes of documents. And there's lots more.

Will it all be worth the inevitable aggravation that comes with adopting a brand new architecture? Should enterprises go from XP to Windows 7, or directly to Windows 8. There's much to consider. "Windows 8 is not your normal low or even high-impact major release of the OS," said Gartner analyst Steve Kleynhans. "It's the start of a new era for Microsoft." In other words, the decision to go Windows 8 will be a tough call--but isn't that why CIOs get paid the big bucks?