Windows 8 Vs.The Post-PC Era

Windows 8 borrows ideas from the shiny new world of tablets, but bumps up against old-world IT concerns around upgrades.
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The post-PC era will follow a distinct middle age marked by wistfulness, the uncertainty around lifelong commitments, and a tendency to pursue shiny new objects while stubbornly clinging to the ideals of yesteryear. That middle age is now. We already carry multiple devices; operating systems like iOS 5, OSX Lion, Windows 8, ChromeOS and the dormant WebOS are redefining how we think about the computing experience; and the notion of what an application is and how it presents itself to the user is quickly evolving.

Here's a shocking data point: In surveying 973 IT professionals about Windows 8, InformationWeek Research found that 52% are planning to move to the operating system that Microsoft is unveiling with all of the requisite teasing normally reserved for reality TV shows. Windows 8 won't be available until-- and this is just spitballing here--sometime in 2012. There are some fairly obvious reasons IT is making plans anyway: Microsoft is ending its support of Windows XP, and despite the success of Windows 7, many IT shops have skipped it altogether, or they are still in the process of rolling it out with new PCs.

As InformationWeek's Paul McDougall points out in his story on IT's plans to shift to Windows 8, 36 percent of those who say they'll make the move are doing so because of Microsoft's decision on Windows XP. (Interestingly, 34% of those polled say they run Linux on desktops, and 29% say they also run Mac OSX.)

Windows 8 represents a dynamic new user experience, among other benefits (like built in support for desktop virtualization.) It borrows from smartphone and tablet themes, like a touch interface, and tiles that cull contacts and social networks and messages and rich media. These tiles also provide a streaming feed of that data. Not everything from the mobile world translates onto the personal computer, but some of it does. As users move from the PC to the tablet to the smartphone and back again, the user experience will need to be more seamless.

[ See InformationWeek's exclusive findings on Windows 8 upgrade plans. ]

The notion of live tiles is a spin, for example, on the idea of widgets, which are a key differentiator for Android. Widgets aren't just app shortcuts, but fully present data feeds. Think stock tickers or sports scores or storm updates, but with e-mail and reminders and calendars. On the business PC or tablet, that could also mean a BI dashboard widget, scrolling sales figures and updates, or other key performance indicators (KPIs). "Tile" and "widget" are rather unfortunate monikers for these semi-apps, but they'll do for now.

Even the notion of an application is changing. It's now an "app," something closer to a self-contained user experience dedicated to a particular function, not the monolithic software applications that run big business. Already those big applications are moving to the cloud, where they run as a service, feeding data to a tight container in a browser or in an app. PC Magazine's John Dvorak proclaimed recently that "It's An App World After All", a sudden realization that, thanks to Apple, this is how end users have begun to think.

This has paved the way for app stores, not only for the smartphone, but also for browsers (like Chrome) and even now the operating system (Apple's Lion). Some smart App Store purveyors are extending those to corporations: private-label catalogs for vetted apps, and internally developed apps, around which IT can create policies and ensure security.

Soon, the operating system will matter less, other than as an underlying infrastructure for serving up data into widgets and apps. Once HTML5 becomes the viable platform upon which applications are delivered, Dvorak's proclamation will actually be true.

But all of that is still far off. We have history to deal with, after all. The world is still dominated by the PC, for example. And while the shiny new objects are enticing, with everything new comes unplanned pain. For instance, in our survey we asked, with some degree of cheekiness, whether IT folks planned to wait until Windows 8 Service Pack before deploying the new OS.

But there is a serious side to the question. Take Apple's latest operating system, Lion: Our own IT organization (TechWeb, the company to which InformationWeek belongs) has yet to roll it out, even on brand-new laptops (which come with Lion installed by default,) because there are still some application compatibility issues. Most notably, Lion cannot reliably work with Microsoft Active Directory, a key piece of access control for many corporations. Forrester recently chided companies to get on the Mac bandwagon, arguing (with research to back it up) that workers who use Macs tend to be more productive and collaborative.

Unfortunately, it's not that easy. Everything needs to be tested, sometimes applications need modification, older laptops might be underpowered, maintenance and upgrade costs need to be budgeted, and so on. Even those who are planning the move to Windows 8 don't have much of a timeline for doing so.

The barriers to Windows 8 adoption include the fact that many haven't even gotten around to Windows 7 upgrades yet, not to mention the lack of business drivers and other, higher IT priorities.

Such is the way with all new things.

Barely a minute after iOS 5 came out, web sites were crowdsourcing the features users wanted in the next version, which Apple was surely already well underway on anyhow; Windows Phone 7 Mango has just hit phones, and there is talk of Windows Phone 7 Apollo.

The problem, as InformationWeek's Art Wittmann eloquently puts it, is that OS upgrades are a "once per decade event to something more like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. Once you’re finished, it’s time to go back and start over."

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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