You're going to hear a lot about the hits and misses of Windows 8 over the next couple weeks. You'll read wildly divergent reviews of Windows 8's flagship device, the Microsoft Surface. But, if you are a business decision maker or an IT professional and you are trying to sort out what Windows 8 has to offer and whether it is a good fit in your company, then here are the four most important factors that you need to understand.
1. The learning curve is steep, and training is required
With Windows 8, Microsoft is making the most radical change in the history of Windows. Yes, this is even bigger than the launch of Windows 95. Why? Because Microsoft is completely rewriting the idea of what it means to use a computer. The old file and folder metaphor is gone. The visual image of a desktop workspace is history (except for legacy apps). In fact, Microsoft has done away with metaphors from the physical world and unnecessarily graphics altogether and replaced them with plain fonts and boxes. This makes Windows much more adaptable to different screen sizes and much more touch-friendly.
I applaud Microsoft for its boldness in moving the Windows platform forward. This will improve computing for the next decade. But in the next breath, I have to issue a warning to businesses that want to support Windows 8: The learning curve is steep. Windows 8 is designed for touch screens and it is generally user friendly. But the user interface is not as self-evident as the iPhone or the iPad. You're not going to be able to hand it to a toddler or a technophobe and have them immediately start navigating it without instructions. Of course, it's also more capable than iOS in many ways, but that comes at the price of complexity. People who are used to using Windows will be very confused by Windows 8 at first, and people who are familiar with iPhone or iPad are not going to be able to immediately figure out how to use a Windows 8 tablet, for example. Training will be to be required.
2. Security has improved in practical ways
One of the biggest behind-the-scenes improvements in Windows 8 involves security. While that's not very flashy or noticeable, it's something that will improve the lives of users by preemptively protecting them from a lot of the things that can cause their computers to slow down, or worse, be compromised by hackers or malware. The main thing you need to know about Windows 8 security is that it makes web browsing safer, it makes using browser extensions safer, and it makes downloading and using apps safer. For all of the technical details, read the TechRepublic article What Windows 8 has done to improve security.
3. Windows RT has business restrictions
There are important differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT. Microsoft has not done a very good job of communicating how those differences, especially in relation to the Microsoft Surface tablets. Windows RT is basically a "lite" version of Windows 8 that runs on ARM processors, which means that it can run on smaller, less expensive machines with much better battery life. At the Windows 8 launch event on Thursday, Microsoft Windows chief Steven Sinofsky called it, "A new and exciting member of the Windows family."
Devices running Windows RT look and feel exactly like Windows 8, and that's part of the problem. A lot of consumers and businesses are likely to buy devices like the new Microsoft Surface (running Windows RT) being launched at the same time as Windows 8. Despite the promise of these machines being more powerful than other competitive tablets and devices, consumers will find that they cannot run traditional Windows apps and business will discover that they cannot connect to a Windows domain. And while Windows RT devices include a version of Microsoft Office 2013, it is the Home & Student edition that doesn't include Microsoft Outlook and it is not licensed for business use unless you buy a commercial use license.
There is enough hand-wringing over the Windows RT confusion that some are predicting that the product is DOA. I don't think the situation is that dire, but I do think businesses need to thoroughly research whether devices running Windows RT will work in their environment before deciding to support them or they will end up with some very frustrated users.
4. The Windows app ecosystem is changing -- big time
With the launch of Windows 8 also comes the launch of the Windows Store -- Microsoft's answer to the Apple App Store and Google Play. This radically changes the model of how software is installed on Windows and makes it much more akin to the way users install apps on smartphones and tablets. For the most part, that's a good thing. It's easier to find Windows software and faster to buy and install it, and it's in a central place where Microsoft verifies the value, safety, and authenticity of the software so that you know you're not downloading something malicious that will infect your machine with malware.
For companies that want to deploy custom Windows apps that are restricted only to their employees or IT departments that want to deploy software the old fashioned way by loading it on a bunch of systems themselves, they will need to do what is called "sideloading" apps. That means installing apps manually instead of doing it through the Windows Store.
More for business...
Interestingly enough, at the WIndows 8 launch event, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, "We're going to continue to add to the Windows 8 experience for business. Look for more to come." He specifically pointed out a couple Microsoft products -- Dynamics and Yammer -- that will soon have updates related to Window 8.
Since the entire Windows 8 product cycle has been so heavily consumer-focused, maybe Ballmer's comments will give IT and business professionals some reason to hope for a little more attention on the enterprise side.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.