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."
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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.
Even Microsoft is advising its corporate customers to go slow on Windows 8, which is presently available to commercial subscribers and developers. "Customers that are in the process of Windows 7 deployments should continue deploying Windows 7 and migrate off of Windows XP as soon as possible," said Microsoft marketing director Stella Chernyak, in a blog post last week.
So is Windows 8 a total non-starter for enterprises? Not so fast. While it's unlikely to show up on the majority of corporate desktops for years, if ever, many of the new Windows 8 tablets that will hit the market on Friday will undoubtedly start walking in the front door soon after. They'll be carried by users who want the benefits of a tablet in a Windows environment that is compatible with their employers' IT backbone.
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"People want iPads, but iPads are hard to manage. So Windows 8 in a similar form factor is much more attractive to us," said University of Dayton's Mlazovsky. He noted that some of the specialized software used by university faculty, such as certain CAD/CAM apps, won't run on Apple's iOS. "We're hoping that Windows 8 gives us the best of both worlds," he said.
Gartner's Silver said enterprises and other organizations should be able to successfully mix Windows 7 PCs and Win8 tablets. "Having Windows 7 desktops and Windows 8 tablets won't be that bad to support, there's a lot of commonality between Windows 7 and Windows 8," he said.
Enterprises just need to be careful which version of Windows 8 they purchase or encourage users to acquire.
Intel and AMD-based tablets running Windows 8 Pro should be compatible with most Microsoft security and administration tools and legacy apps. Tablets running Windows RT, a variant of Windows 8 for ARM-based devices, will not be. Windows RT tablets, even Microsoft Surface RT, will not be capable of running in a Windows Server Active Directory domain. Also, Windows RT devices will not run apps written for Windows 7 or older versions of Windows.
That's why some vendors that focus on the enterprise market have no plans to introduce Windows RT devices. Fujitsu last week rolled out a new line of Windows 8 PCs and tablets, including the 10.1-inch Stylistic Q572 tablet. It runs Windows 8 Pro on AMD's Z-60 "Hondo" architecture. Moore said the company will skip Windows RT. "We focus on the enterprise, and that's a different subset. Windows RT is going to compete more on the consumer level."
For enterprises that do want to run Windows 8 on the desktop, and not just tablets, the advice is to go slow. "We recommend customers identify employees and user groups that can benefit most from Windows 8's capabilities and deploy Windows 8 for those people, alongside Windows 7," said Microsoft's Chernyak. It's sound advice, which most enterprises appear ready to follow.