What if Windows 8 flops?

Windows 8 could be the next Windows Vista if business users opt for downgrades

Microsoft launches Windows 8 later this month after a year of gradually making the new operating system more and more available, hoping for a big hit that will drive sales this holiday season and beyond, and giving the company new hope of grabbing a bigger share of tablet sales.

But what if Windows 8 flops?

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For businesses, the problem won't be that dire, says Paul DeGroot, principal consultant at Pica Communications. Businesses that are Microsoft shops already have an operating system, likely Windows 7, but if not, Windows XP with a plan to adopt Windows 7 soon before support for XP ends next spring.

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If Windows 8 is a complete bust, enterprises can stick with Windows 7 and wait until Microsoft picks itself up and does a better job with Windows 8 service packs or Windows 9 (or whatever it calls the next major release), he says. After all that's what happened with Windows Vista, says Matthew Casey, an analyst with Technology Business Research, and Microsoft can handle a disappointing Windows 8.

In fact that is a likely scenario, DeGroot says. . "Most of the companies I work with are standardizing on Windows 7. They are not going to be migrating to Windows 8." He says many businesses will license Windows 8 but end up reimaging their networks with Windows 7, similar to how many enterprises licensed Vista but installed XP.

Casey says a Microsoft stumble with Windows 8 will be handled by businesses the same way the performance of Windows Vista was handled. "If that's the case we'll see a similar reaction from Microsoft," he says "It's not going to be them closing their doors." The company will press on with Windows 8 and its fundamental architecture.

The impact on consumers won't be that great, either. If Windows 8 doesn't catch on a big part of the reason will be that consumers are buying some other tablet platform they like better, so they'll be happy. But according to Gartner, Microsoft will be missing a big opportunity to make its mark in mobile devices if the Windows 8 gamble doesn't pay off.

"It is a risk that Microsoft must take to stay relevant in a world where mobile devices with new modern experiences are becoming the norm," Gartner says in a research note "Is Windows 8 in Your Future?"

The popularity of smartphones and tablets has Microsoft playing catch up, particularly with Apple, whose iPad dominates in tablets and whose iPhone holds down big large chunk of smartphones. "With Windows 8, Microsoft tries to address the excitement of the tablet market by adding a tablet interface to Windows," Gartner says.

If Windows 8 does become popular with consumers and finds its way into enterprises via the bring-your-own-device phenomenon it will still have hurdles to clear with IT departments.

Ultrabooks and tablets still need to establish themselves in the corporate world where their use raises questions, Casey says. Who will pay for them? How will they be secured? "These are pieces that need to fall into place in the enterprise planning cycle," he says.

It's also questionable whether they will gain traction as platforms for business applications, DeGroot says. "I think that is going to be a very tough sell," DeGroot says, because the apps have to be vetted by the Microsoft Store before they will be allowed on closed Windows 8 devices. Businesses won't want to leap that hurdle nor will they want to side-load apps on devices to get around the restriction that Windows 8 apps must be reviewed by and sold through the store. "I have some difficulty imagining many organizations are going to want to do that."

Beyond that, developers are not prepared to write for Windows 8; their training and experience leans toward traditional enterprise applications for conventional desktops without touch capabilities, DeGroot says. Touchscreen can actually be a barrier.

With Windows 8 Microsoft is overhauling the underpinnings of its operating system with the introduction of Windows Runtime, a new architecture that gives a common footing to applications across a range of devices. Such applications can support both x86 and ARM hardware, potentially opening up the possibility of writing apps once that can run on any device.

Microsoft hopes it can write its next major chapter with Windows 8 and Windows Runtime, Gartner says, and that is what makes a Windows 8 success - and avoiding a flop - so important. Windows 8 is simply the biggest turning point for Microsoft in decades.

"Windows 8 is not your normal low- or even high-impact major release of the OS," the research firm says. "We believe it's the start of a new era for Microsoft, the Windows RT era, which follows the Windows NT era that began in 1993 and is just starting to wane."

(Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Tim_Greene.)

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