Microsoft shops have been in a difficult position with regard to OS upgrades the last several years. After a good run with Windows XP, most sat out the release of Vista after critics panned the OS on release. At that point, XP was regarded as "good enough," and many of the purported improvements were regarded as consumer-driven fluff rather than compelling enterprise features.
Windows 7 arrived to positive press; however, many CIOs decided to wait for the first service pack for the OS to "prove itself" while Microsoft continued to support Windows XP, and it even underwent a bit of a resurgence with the rise of netbooks. Not long after Windows 7 received its first service pack, rumblings of Windows 8 were well underway. For IT organizations that are still with XP, there's a trifecta of troubles brewing as they consider where to go from XP.
XP is moving from old to ancient
When Vista arrived, many considered XP "good enough." It supported the hardware of the time, had nearly endless software compatibility, and was even faster and more stable than the initial release of Vista. While those were all acceptable reasons to sit out the cost and effort required for an upgrade, in 2012 XP is finally well past its prime. Multi-core processors and 4-8GB of RAM were astronomically expensive and relegated to only the most expensive server-room hardware in 2001 when XP was released, but they're now commodities available on most entry-level business desktops and notebooks.
XP now has markedly inferior performance compared to Windows 7, and the clock is rapidly ticking down on official support from Microsoft. Enterprise software providers are also shifting away from XP, especially as these vendors have little interest in testing, supporting, and maintaining their software for three or more Microsoft operating systems (potentially over eight variations from XP to Windows 8, in 32-bit, 64-bit, and ARM guise).
XP is no longer the "computing standard"
One of the great things about Microsoft retaining dominance in corporate and consumer computing was that for years you could assume an average person would know how to use Windows XP. The software shipped on consumer and corporate hardware was nearly identical, and the user experience essentially the same. In short, if a new employee owned a computer or used one in a previous job, they had probably used Windows XP and thus would be familiar with their new computing environment.
While Windows Vista and Windows 7 are not as dramatic a departure from XP as Windows 8 is to 7/Vista, it does represent evolutionary change. Vista has been around for the past five years, and for your university hires XP is likely a distant memory. While I doubt some of the claimed productivity benefits of an evolutionary OS release like Vista or Windows 7, remaining with XP further alienates your company from the current computing standard, and does affect your users.
Windows 8 represents a sea change
While Windows Vista/7 were largely an evolution of Windows XP, Windows 8 represents a more fundamental change that many are comparing to the leap from MS-DOS to Windows 95. If you're currently on XP, the leap to Windows 8 is even larger. Not only are you incorporating the evolutionary changes introduced with Vista like enhanced search and the "aero" interface, but all of this will coexist with the new Metro interface, making the leap to Windows 8 almost akin to two new operating systems in one.
While a large-scale OS rollout may not be the most technically complex undertaking, it is a critical effort; if users can't even boot a working computer IT is going to be run through the wringer. Another negative wrought by a long reliance on XP is that your IT department is likely out of practice in managing an OS upgrade, and likely will require careful planning and attention to do so successfully. In the next part, I'll look at how to plan an OS upgrade, as well as a recommendation on which OS should be your platform of choice.
(See also Where to get the Windows 8 beta.)
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.