If you think you read my title wrong, take a second look. You'd think from all the overblown attention that the Modern interface is garnering, that I was going to focus another drab op-ed around that sole feature. Yes, the Modern UI is a radical change and will turn a lot of people off. But let's not forget that with every new Windows release comes features that actually don't get the time of day. I think a few of these deserve a sliver of attention.
We've been down this road before. Let's not forget that the introduction of the Office ribbon menu system was considered shocking back in 2006, and years later a majority of users have accepted and embraced the changes. Apple received similar kickback on its radical iPhone design back in 2007. I truly believe the heat on Windows 8's Modern UI will come and go like the rest of modern tech's evolutionary moments.
As the fog surrounding the UI debate starts to dissipate, it's interesting to see the preliminary support Windows 8 is getting for the enterprise and business in general. In the newest issue of Redmond Magazine, Don Jones pens a timely piece highlighting some of the better aspects of Windows 8. Correcting the misnomer that most pundits pass along, Jones explains how the Modern UI is nothing more than a "dashboard" like the Dashboard feature in OS X. There is still one true desktop in Windows 8, easily accessible in multiple manners at any given time.
I happen to like Windows 8 a lot — and I don't adore the Modern UI. But then again, it didn't take a complete reawakening for me to understand how to best utilize the user interface. I think positive feelings about Windows 8, while taking into consideration qualms about Modern UI, can be mutually exclusive (unlike some other tech pundits would make you believe.) If you think Windows 7 is fast, 8 is that much faster. In many areas, it happens to be cleaner and offers a value proposition that end users may actually realize. Windows Refresh, anyone?
I was also intrigued to hear about Microsft's own internal transition to Windows 8 at a small tech briefing in Chicago a few months back. If any company has something to prove about enterprise embracing Windows 8, it has to be big M by far. Since mid-July 2012, Microsoft claims to have had 30,000 computers and roughly 30,000 employees moved over to Windows 8 (along with IE10.)
Impressive to say the least. I asked a Microsoft rep present at the aforementioned Chicago tech event how employees were dealing with the transition, and the answer was pretty honest. Smooth for most; rocky for others. Enterprise transitions are never easy, so it's good to see Microsoft eating its own dogfood very early on.
While the early adopters are clearly making strides towards Windows 8, these are some of my arguments for considering passing on Windows 7 in favor of 8.
1. Windows rollouts take 12-18 months; why fall further behind on your upgrade cycle? Most estimates on a business migration from one Windows version to another are pitted at a 12 to 18 month timespan. Think about this purely from a ROI perspective for a second: if you haven't even begun a migration to Windows 7, where will you be time-wise when you finally finish? Keep in mind that Windows 7 came out in mid-2009 which means if you are pondering whether to begin a move to Win 7 just now, you won't be finished until about late 2013 if not well into 2014. Windows 7 will already be an OS that has been on the market for 4-5 years at that point, meaning you will be eyeing your next Windows move in the not-so-distant future.
It's also acute to be mindful of Microsoft's support lifecycles for Windows versions when planning migrations. Windows 7 loses mainstream support by January of 2015, and gets completely cut off by extended support in January of 2020. At best, you're talking about an OS that will see only about 5-6 years of usage max before it's time to get back to the rollout drawing board.
In contrast, if your company made the move to Windows 8, you would enjoy a much healthier lifespan. Mainstream support for 8 ends in January 2018 and extended support runs all the way until January 2023. If I were planning a Windows migration for my FireLogic customers, I would be taking a second (or third) look at skipping 7 entirely.
2. Windows 8 is faster than 7 in every respect. Here's another thing you may have missed in the all FUD surrounding Windows 8: it's a helluva lot faster than Windows 7. And Windows 7 is what I consider the best OS yet from Microsoft! How can it perform better in light of what most people see as bloat from Modern UI?
It's got a few things going for it. First off, Microsoft stripped out a lot of what bloated Windows editions in the past. Things like DVD playback and other extraneous features that can easily be added on via third-party apps were dropped in an effort to slim down the OS. It's not surprising, then, that Windows 8 uses less memory pound-for-pound compared to Win 7. Couple Windows 8 with a decent SSD and you can turn that Vista-era snail of a PC into something almost reborn.
The reduced memory consumption and overall smaller footprint of Windows 8 means that aging corporate desktops can still keep ticking. If you were initially planning on replacing more of your PC fleet than you hoped, Windows 8 may save your company some decent cash. Testers claim that Windows 8 can run with as little as 128MB of RAM. While it's more proof-of-concept than anything, the takeaway from this should be that you may not have to toss that old hardware just yet.
In my testing, Windows 8 starts and shuts down so fast that I don't even bother putting it to sleep anymore. Cold boots are nearly as quick as sleep mode. Don't blink, because you may not even notice the new boot screen!
3. Microsoft's focus on security in Win 8 is readily apparent. If the performance aspects of Windows 8 aren't enough to sway you from 7, then perhaps all of the investment in security features will tickle you nicely. While there are too many to name in here, a few of the most important ones must be mentioned. Secure Boot is a core feature of Windows 8 security that in essence locks down the OS initialization process to the point where rootkits and other popular malware will no longer have a place to hide. Microsoft couples validated secure firmware to help authenticate the boot process and get rid of the "back door" that has existed for so long.
Windows To Go is a new feature that replicates what we have come to know in the Linux world as Live CDs. How does this fit into a business' usage of Windows 8? This enables an IT department to hand out Windows To Go powered flash drives (not all flash drives are compatible though) to contractors and other short-term workers who need access to a standardized instance of Windows 8. In the past, IT had to provide the hardware and software for end users. Not so much anymore.
AppLocker is a feature returning from Windows 7, but improved over its first iteration. This simple blacklist/whitelist technology allows admins to create strict application policies for end users, which extends to Modern UI apps as well in Win 8. For businesses looking to truly lock down a common desktop environment, AppLocker has to be one of the greatest gifts from Microsoft.
4. Sick of managing printer drivers? Windows 8 does away with the old mess. This aspect of Windows 8 hasn't nearly gotten the press it rightfully deserves. But for anyone who has tried to manage a modern print server, it's fairly well known that making end-users' lives easier entails a lengthy process of finding proper drivers, testing them, and deploying them centrally – hoping nothing screws up in the process.
Microsoft realized the mess that we know as printer driver hell and built an entirely new backend for getting Windows 8 and printers to talk. The technical details are explained in an excellent but lengthy blog post. Toss out everything you know about print drivers to date. Starting in Win 8, printer compatibility is primarily achieved through the use of truly "instant" connections made via a modern "printer class driver framework". This radical shift was sped up due to the arrival of Windows RT, but was properly extended to the entire Windows 8 range.
Printing in Windows, until now, has been literally a 1:1 process behind the scenes, where a specific print driver was matched to a given printer. This had to be specific per edition of Windows, and even further down to the variations between x86 and x64 flavors. This new framework allows a common printing driver to support a near endless array of printers old and new. Microsoft knows that not all printers will work with this new model and built in full compatibility with all previous Windows 7 printer drivers. But going forward, Microsoft aims for what the introduction of USB was supposed to harbor: true plug and play.
5. Multi-monitor support is finally done right. Corporate workers tend to use multiple monitors now to get their work done. It's a simple fact of life. At my previous school district IT job, the mere mention of getting a spare monitor for dual-screen usage caused some very public jealousy. Windows (even Win 7) wasn't perfect with how it handled multiple screens. Initial detection was always spotty; the taskbar never quite figured out how to span across all screens; and moving applications between screens was sometimes a chore when perfect placement was necessary.
Luckily, Microsoft has done a great deal to address the issues with multiple screen usage in Windows 8. Using multiple monitors shouldn't be a chore, and has been simplified in many regards. For example, you can now easily tell Windows 8 to span the common taskbar across all your screens. Customization of the various desktops is vast, with the ability to span large wallpapers or have separate wallpapers for every monitor. You can even move Modern UI apps over to different screens to your liking.
Other nagging issues like losing track of which taskbar items belonged to which instance of an app have been addressed. You can duplicate open items in the primary taskbar, and also have the screen that hosts a unique window to show its respective taskbar item on that same monitor. Bringing up the Start menu can be done on any screen, and likewise can be done with the common Charms bar. Microsoft spared no expense to get multi monitor support down to a T in Windows 8.
If you judge Windows 8 on the introduction of the Modern UI start screen alone, it may tank at first glance. But I challenge those involved with enterprise (or even small to midsize business, for that matter) IT to give Windows 8 a second look. It's polished, speedy and built with security in mind. I've got nothing against Windows 7, but after giving Windows 8 a spin myself, my apprehension with Microsoft's latest desktop release is dwindling quickly.
You can grab the 90 day Windows 8 Enterprise trial over on MSDN and see what you think. Here's hoping you actually find some usefulness in the new Windows — as I surprisingly did.