Microsoft has described Windows 8 as its most important new operating system for nearly two decades - a 'generational change' with a completely new user interface and a new emphasis on touchscreen computing.
Alongside the launch of its new smartphone operating system and its Surface tablet, Windows 8 is Microsoft's response to the vastly changed technology landscape it now inhabits. Tablets - most notably the iPad - are eating into sales of laptops and PCs and Microsoft is playing catch-up on both.
The commercial pressure on Microsoft demands that it responds with a new operating system that has the feature firepower to take on its rivals. And while consumers will have little choice but to adopt the new operating system because it will come as standard when they buy a new PC, that doesn't necessarily mean corporate customers will be rushing to adopt it.
Many businesses are still using Windows XP - a sturdy workhorse of an operating system launched way back in 2001. Others are just completing upgrades to Windows 7 which went on sale in 2009. Businesses tend to upgrade slowly because of the scale of their infrastructure, for example the need to ensure that other business applications will still work post upgrade. And the cost associated means CIOs need a good reason to upgrade in the form of clear business benefits, especially when budgets are so tight.
And IT chiefs polled by TechRepublic are split on the prospects for Windows 8, with some suggesting that the new features are actually off-putting rather than attractive.
When asked 'Does Windows 8 makes sense on business desktops?' TechRepublic's exclusive CIO Jury panel was split evenly suggesting that Microsoft will have to work hard to make a case for upgrading.
Cost is one issue that will hold organisations back. "Not in the current financial climate," said Richard Storey, head of IT at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust.
One of the most striking aspects of Windows 8 is a new user interface (UI) - gone is the Start button and applications are presented in a way that is similar to the Live Tiles seen on a Windows Phone device.
While smartphone users are used to this sort of user interface, Kevin Quealy, director of information services and facilities at Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia warned this change might put off enterprise customers.
"The new UI would inhibit users who are used to the traditional UI. I believe businesses will turn their backs on Windows 8 unless major changes are made. Users do not want a tablet experience when working on a desktop or laptop computer."
Similarly Mike Woodford, executive director of IT Technical Services USANA Health Sciences, said there is little interest for business in yet another upgrade so soon after Windows 7. "Our internal testing shows that there is little in the way of additional business value that comes with the very large learning curve for the average user due to the new UI, which lacks the intuitiveness (perhaps the familiarity) of the Windows interface that everyone is comfortable with.
He added: "We are seeing very little functional value for the cost of change and pain of user transition and training."
Microsoft may find that IT departments will need good reasons why they should take the time and effort needed for such a significant upgrade. Jeff Canon, CIO of Fire and Life Safety America said a company-wide upgrade to Windows 8 would be too disruptive at this time and said: "Test users in our company didn't like losing the Start button. Users stated it didn't feel as useable as Windows 7. They struggled a little bit adjusting to the new interface. Users are still excited about the potential to use the same OS and apps on their desktop/laptop and the Surface tablet but there's significant risk to short term productivity."
He added: "It's more likely that we'll deploy the tablets and then upgrade to Windows 8 on their laptop/desktop as users become comfortable with the new interface… if at all. Windows 7 works very well for us - no one here is jumping up and down to swap it out."
However, many of the CIOs said it will be the use of Windows 8 by consumers that will finally lead to enterprise adoption.
Afonso Caetano, CIO at J Macêdo has been testing Windows 8 for several months and said that while it will deliver "more advantages than any other version before", the impact to the regular desktop users will be "profound" which means a well-structured implementation project, including training and internal "selling" of the new productivity and integration features is needed. He also said use of the operating system is likely to start with mobile devices - such as Surface and cell phones and then after some time, spreading through the corporate desktops and notebooks.
Meanwhile Mike Roberts, IT director at The London Clinic, said success depends on the uptake of mobile devices: "As users turn to the new version, businesses must follow," while Tim Stiles, CIO at Bremerton Housing Authority, said "It will first become pervasive in the mobile environment, then migrate to the business desktop."
Adam Gerrard, CTO at Laterooms.com, said given that more of the workforce are using the latest technology at home, as well as bringing their own devices to work, it makes sense that they should be more productive using the newer interface that ships with Windows 8. In turn, he said, this should reduce the burden of training for new employees and the cost of providing support to them.
John F. Rogers, IT manager with Nor-Cal Products, said while he was not looking forward to another upgrade cycle and all the work it entails, he is intrigued to see how this particular operating system will fit into the business desktop ecosystem "since it is really a hybrid OS of sorts".
He explained: "Whether it makes sense will be dependent upon how well the two interfaces work together and whether the end user will be able to successfully make the transition and make it work for them. I'm sure there will be some resistance to change as there always is, but I do think that as computing moves toward other input mediums such as touch it will gradually become more the norm."
Kevin Leypoldt, IS director at Structural Integrity Associates, said he sees some "compelling features" for the enterprise in Windows 8 "the Refresh and Reset feature could cut down on reimaging time and costs, [plus] Windows to Go for portability, client-side Hyper V, Secure Boot and File History (to name a few)". But he added: "It's my opinion that this is a transitional OS for Microsoft. As so many technology pundits are saying Windows 8 may fall into the same pattern as ME and Vista."
But for Jerry Justice, IT director with SS&G Financial Services, it's an inevitable move for Microsoft: "They have to get away from the 'legacy' app delivery model to a more cloud-centric app model and touch is one requirement."
And John Gracyalny, VP IT at SafeAmerica Credit Union, said: "It makes as much sense as moving from Win2K to WinXP or from WinXP to Win7. Then only question is when, and that is driven by when my software vendors certify it."
This week's CIO Jury was
- Jeff Cannon, CIO of Fire and Life Safety America
- Afonso Caetano, CIO at J Macêdo
- Dan Fiehn, group head of IT at Markerstudy Group
- Adam Gerrard, CTO at Laterooms.com
- John Gracyalny, Vice President - IT with SafeAmerica Credit Union
- Jerry Justice, IT director of SS&G Financial Services
- Kevin Quealy, director of information services and facilities at Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia
- Mike Roberts, IT Director of The London Clinic
- John F. Rogers IT manager with Nor-Cal Products
- Tim Stiles, CIO at Bremerton Housing Authority
- Richard Storey, head of IT at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust
- Mike Woodford, executive director of IT Technical Services USANA Health Sciences
Steve Ranger is the UK editor of TechRepublic, and has been writing about the impact of technology on people, business and culture for more than a decade. Before joining TechRepublic he was the editor of silicon.com.