Windows 8: The Legacy Apps Question

Support for legacy applications is a Windows 8 selling point. But Gartner says the need for such apps is declining and has little to do with upgrading to the new OS.
8 Key Differences Between Windows 8 And Windows RT
8 Key Differences Between Windows 8 And Windows RT
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The lead up to Windows 8 has seen many commentators stress the importance of legacy application support. But mobility, BYOD, and developer trends have caused a shift in enterprise needs. This shift raises a question: is compatibility with old apps a true workplace necessity, or has the idea become an overstated marketing tactic that IT managers should take with a grain of salt?

Windows 7 is dominant in the workplace, and more than a few companies still rely on Windows XP. The ubiquity of these OSes means that, for some businesses, the importance of a few Windows-exclusive apps can make continued use of Microsoft's OS a must. The issue of custom apps built for Windows environments only solidifies this point.

But according to a Wednesday talk by Gartner analyst Michael Silver during the research firm's Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, legacy support is becoming increasingly less important. The progression, he said, hasn't yet made traditional apps obsolete or easily replaceable, but with the rise of browser-based and otherwise OS-agnostic apps, enterprise desktops are not as beholden to Microsoft as they once were.

And even among those who will continue to use Windows, he remarked, Windows 8 might not offer compelling reasons to upgrade. Silver said that as far back as 1996, 95% of the apps used by typical organizations required Windows. This figure had dropped to 50% in the last year, and that today, fewer than half of the most common enterprise apps require a specific OS, he said.

[ Read Windows 8: Why I Won't Upgrade. ]

Part of the downward trend stems from mobile devices, but Silver said many enterprises used the Windows 7 migration as an opportunity to reduce their app portfolios. Not all businesses have completed, or even begun, this migration--but he said that typical organizations cut a quarter of their apps. Silver tied this to the cloud. The PC is "no longer the center of the universe," he noted. A few years ago, everything synchronized with desktops and laptops, but now--in what Gartner calls the "personal cloud era"--fewer processes reside on the desktop itself, with more and more of them involving communication between the device and a cloud-based service. "The definition of what your desktop is is really changing," he said.

This change has made it easier for businesses to explore new approaches. "A lot of people like Windows, but the rising star is Apple," he noted. He said that client calls used to involve "keeping Apple out of the organization." However, thanks largely to iPhones and iPads attracting more users to Apple's ecosystem, the question has shifted to, "How do I allow Apple into my organization and make sure it's secure and manageable?"

Although organizations are trying to get more open, Silver said Linux interest is "way down." Google's Chrome OS, meanwhile, has been basically a non-starter in Gartner's experience, prompting only a couple of client inquiries per year.

The desktop choice for most businesses, in other words, still boils down to Macs versus PCs.

Macs present "a lot of perceived benefits," but "most of them are hard to quantify," said Silver. Apple machines don't offer enough savings to build a business case. Instead the appeal for IT departments is in pleasing users. Macs can help attract and retain the best people, Silver said. He said that Gartner has noticed a trend, which started on the West Coast and spread east, in which new college graduates make employment decisions based on whether Macs are allowed in the office. Although it might be difficult to believe in the current job market, he said that desirable applicants have actually declined job offers in Windows-only environments. "With Apple, there are a lot of perceptions [around improved productivity and security]," he said, adding, "I'm not sure all of those are actually reality, but certainly to an end user, perception is reality."

Silver noted that, like Windows machines, Macs also have become less beholden to OS-specific applications, allowing enterprises to open up their environments. He also noted that replacing a valuable employee can cost up to three times that employee's salary, so even if Apple's computers don't present direct savings, reduced recruitment and retention efforts "could be a significant cost that you can put into a business case."

Among legacy applications, Silver said, IT departments must consider Microsoft Office first and foremost. He noted that a lot of alternatives exist--from OpenOffice to iWorks to Google Docs--but that only Word fits the needs of both the least and most demanding workers, offering not only basic word processing but also more advanced features, such as macros. Certain alternatives, such as IBM Docs and Google Docs, provide attractive features, such as collaboration tools, but none offers Word's top-to-bottom feature set.

What's more, he said, alternatives need to be compatible with Microsoft Office because Office's footprint is so large. A division whose employees communicate exclusively with one another could have the flexibility to choose freely, but if any external interactions are required, Office is hard to replace. He noted that this dynamic is changing due to tablets. "What I want to do on my iPad to an Office doc is different than what I want to do with a mouse and keyboard. [On the tablet] I want to mark it up, review it--not write my life story." He said Microsoft's ability to create mobile versions of its Office suite is a "wild card" but that the company would have to avoid cannibalizing its desktop sales.

So, for the moment, legacy app support remains an unavoidable consideration, but the tides are slowly turning. So what does this mean for Windows 8?

Silver reiterated Gartner's skepticism that enterprises, despite the ongoing need for at least a few traditional apps, will deploy Windows 8 in large numbers. He cited not only that many businesses are still recouping Windows 7 investments but also that businesses typically do not roll out a new OS until it is a few years old. By that point, Windows 9 rumors will likely have surfaced. Likening Windows 8's situation to the one that faced Windows ME,

Silver said that up to 90% of businesses will likely skip a broad Windows 8 upgrade, and that they will confine the new OS to "specific uses." Silver suggested that Microsoft knows this, and that Windows 8 is more about selling tablets and increasing the company's reach in the mobile arena. Indeed, touch-based UIs could actually deter enterprises, as companies would need to invest in not only the new OS but also new equipment to support it.

Selling tablets, though, will require consumer adoption, and Silver expressed uncertainty that average buyers will take to the somewhat confusing variety of Windows 8 options, which include an ARM-based version. "It will be an interesting Christmas season," he said.

Upgrading isn't the easy decision that Win 7 was. We take a close look at Server 2012, changes to mobility and security, and more in the new Here Comes Windows 8 issue of InformationWeek. Also in this issue: Why you should have the difficult conversations about the value of OS and PC upgrades before discussing Windows 8. (Free registration required.)