Is Windows 8.1 finally ready for corporate prime time? (Part 1)

by [Published on 29 April 2014 / Last Updated on 29 April 2014]

In this article we'll take a look at why not many businesses have rolled out Windows 8/8.1 on the desktop.

If you would like to read the next part of this article series please go to Is Windows 8.1 finally ready for corporate prime time? (Part 2).

Introduction

Has your company rolled out Windows 8/8.1 on the desktop yet? I didn't think so. Even though Microsoft introduced their new operating system a year and a half ago, very few businesses have taken the plunge. In Part 1 of this article series, I'll talk about some of the probable reasons for that. In Part 2, we'll dive deeper into the latest iteration, Windows 8.1 with Update 1, and examine the features that make it an attractive upgrade for enterprises - and the ones that are holding it back.

The State of 8

Based on purely anecdotal evidence – the feedback that I get from hundreds of readers, friends and relatives who have been introduced to Windows 8, mostly by virtue of buying a new computer – I believe consumers are beginning to warm up to the new OS. But those warm and fuzzy feelings have yet to trickle over onto the business side, and the media – always eager to bash Microsoft – is playing up the reluctance of companies to embrace the operating system that aspired to unseat the currently reigning champion, Windows 7.

As a matter of fact, as of the end of last year, Business Insider had (un)officially proclaimed Windows 8 “a flop” – as had numerous members of the tech pundit community.

As of the beginning of this month, Windows 8 and 8.1 combined had only 11.3 percent of the desktop operating share market, according to statistics from Netmarketshare.com.

At the same time, Windows 7 had almost half of the market (48.77 percent) and there was still a whopping (and frightening) 27.69 percent still using Windows XP, which dropped out of support on April 8 and will no longer receive security updates.

One of the rationales frequently given for the widespread belief that Windows 8 has already failed is that enterprise adoption of the new OS has been slow. An HP spokesperson said in September that most of their enterprise customers are expected to stay with Windows 7, and even plan to downgrade to Windows 7 when they buy new computers.

Where’s the love?

There have been a number of reasons given for Windows 8’s slow workplace adoption. In the business world, upgrading hundreds or thousands of systems is expensive and many of those that have already migrated to Windows 7 are taking the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” approach. But that doesn’t explain the decision to go backward and install Windows 7 on new systems that come with Windows 8. That points to a problem with Windows 8 itself, and that’s all about the learning curve.

Before we declare Windows 8 a dismal failure, though, it behooves us to remember that many, many businesses and home users hated Windows XP when it first came on the scene. The weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth that I heard from so many people back in 2001 who vowed to hang onto Windows 98 or Windows 2000 until it was pried from their cold, dead hands was very similar to the anti-Windows 8 sentiment that I’ve been hearing for the last year. Yet today, Windows XP is still so beloved in the eyes of many that they don’t want to upgrade even though it’s now out of support and no longer receiving security updates. When you’re willing to put your data and personal information at risk for your OS, that’s true love.

Many users – both consumer and business – have shunned Windows 8 for the same reason they initially rejected Windows XP: because of the drastically different interface. Designed for tablets and other touch-enabled screens, the Windows 8 tile-based GUI takes some getting used to. The desktop is still there (a crippled version on Windows RT devices), but those new to Windows 8 found that when they fled to the more familiar territory, something was missing. To be specific, the Start button and menu.

Microsoft obviously underestimated the degree of love and dependency that computer users have developed over the years for that little fly-out box. Pleas from beta testers to bring it back fell on deaf ears. Many (myself included) would argue that if Windows 8 goes down in history as a failure, the lack of a Start menu should be consider the number one proximate cause for that.

A touchy situation

The problem is that, on a non-touch screen desktop or laptop (which is what most in the corporate world still use), the tiles that work well on a tablet just don’t cut it. And when we go back to the desktop, we want it to work the way it always has. Probably the thing that saved Windows 8 from being a total bomb was third party Start menu software such as Stardock’s Start 8 and Classic Shell, which return the desktop to its former functionality. Those of us “in the know” installed one of those, set Windows 8 to boot directly to the desktop, and happily went about enjoying the real improvements: faster performance, better security and reliability, better multiple monitor support, and enhanced utilities such as the new and improved Task Manager.

Another big complaint about the new GUI when it was introduced was that the apps formerly known as Metro (and now called either “modern” apps or Windows Store apps) open full screen. Again, this works well with a touch screen but on a 27 inch HD monitor, not so much. Yes, you could “stack” two of them side-by-side, but you couldn’t have a dozen open and move them around at will as we’re used to doing with Windows (which, after all, has that name for that very reason).

Again, Stardock came to the rescue and created an add-on called Modern Mix, which lets you configure Store apps to open in a window on the desktop. It has some drawbacks; the apps don’t always size themselves to fit well into the windows so you end up scrolling. The Windows 8.1 update went a long way toward making Store apps behave more like desktop apps, and to make it easier to switch back and forth between the two and have them peacefully coexist – as we’ll see in Part 2 – but it doesn’t give you the ability to resize them so you’ll still need Modern Mix for that.

Making things right

Meanwhile, Microsoft seems to be slowly but surely getting the message. In Windows 8.1, they brought back the Start button – but then infuriated many customers by making it take you to the tile-based Start Screen instead of displaying a menu.

In the Windows 8.1 Update 1, they added right-click menus for tiles, title bars for Store apps, taskbar display when Store apps are open, bring the Power button out of hiding, and throw in a few more bones for those who want the old Windows back. We’ll be showing you more about those in Part 2.

At this year’s BUILD developer conference, Microsoft’s OS group VP made a lot of people happy when he announced that the roadmap for Windows includes bringing back the Start menu – albeit in a somewhat different form. The demo showed the traditional list of applications with the search box at the bottom on the left side, with live tiles on the right side. I rather like it. I think they’ve finally hit on the right way to combine the old and new.

The bad news is that we don’t know exactly when this new Start menu is slated to make its appearance. We’re not even sure at this point whether this Start menu-clad version will be a future upgrade to Windows 8.1 (Update 2?) or whether we have to wait for Windows 9 to get it. Back in late 2012 after Windows 8 was released, Microsoft indicated that the company would be shifting from the traditional pattern of releasing a big OS update every 3 years or so to a more frequent release schedule with more incremental changes.

How does that differ from the release of service packs? Although there have been exceptions, generally service packs contain security, reliability and performance fixes but usually don’t add new features or change the interface. These new updates (Windows 8.1 and now Update 1) make fundamental changes to the way the operating system interface works – although they also include security, reliability and performance enhancements as well.

Another announcement that came out of the BUILD conference was the welcome news that the much-heralded dream of a “unified” Windows across device types – phones, tablets, laptops and PCs – is another step closer to reality. Apps will now be “universal,” i.e., the same apps will run on all those platforms with few or no changes to the code. This is something that both developers and users, especially Windows phone users, have wanted for a long time. It’s maddening that a particular app is available for your Windows phone but not for your tablet, or vice versa.

That brings us to another big hurdle that Microsoft has been facing in trying to sell users and businesses on the new OS: the app ecosystem. Many people (myself included) have held back from moving away from iOS or (in my case) Android because of the relative low number of apps for Windows phones and tablets. My hope is that this “universal apps” philosophy will attract more developers to create more apps for Windows.

But will all of this be enough to make business users switch? Only time will tell. In my opinion, the recent changes to Windows 8 and the upcoming changes that we know about make letting go of Windows 7 a more and more attractive option. Whether companies agree and upgrade is something we’ll have to wait to find out.

Summary

Techies aside, most people like to stay within their comfort zones. They resist change, even changes that are beneficial. If they must learn new ways of doing things, they prefer to do it a little at a time. This is especially true when it comes to consumers and typical end-users of software. Beta testing can be misleading to software companies insofar as gauging customer reaction because those individuals and companies that participate are inherently the ones that embrace change more freely.

With Windows 8, Microsoft had some big ideas – but users weren’t ready for such drastic changes and the majority of businesses, conservative by nature, weren’t ready to take a chance on it when Windows 7 was working just fine. By backtracking a bit with Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update, they’re gradually sculpting an OS that will work for everybody. I think that’s a good thing. In Part 2, I’ll show you exactly what I like (and what I still don’t like) in the very latest iteration of Windows client.

If you would like to read the next part of this article series please go to Is Windows 8.1 finally ready for corporate prime time? (Part 2).

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