Will Windows 8 Be Microsoft’s Last PC OS?

So maybe I went off the reservation a little in my last post about all the criticism Microsoft and Windows 8 has been getting without even shipping a unit yet.  But then as I jumped on the Server 2012 and Win8 preview VM’s I have used to evaluate the forthcoming OS’s, I started thinking about other conversations I had yesterday about the future of the desktop and what the “Post-PC” era really means for computing in the future.  And now I’m wondering whether some who predict that once most of the enterprise is on Windows 7, it’ll be the last OS they adopt, relegating Windows 8 to a dwindling stream of consumer PC sales or the OEM deals to enterprises that actually take the plunge (risk?) of Windows 8.  I should disclaim that I have no inside knowledge of Microsoft’s technology roadmaps or strategies, this is just my analysis.  Here’s my five part assessment of why I think this might be the case:

1.  Windows 7 support ends in 2020.  The Windows 7 Product Support Lifecycle lists mainstream support for the OS expiring in 2015, and extended support in 2020.  This is pretty commensurate with their earlier desktop OS lifecycles, and we often see long-in-the-tooth but stable OS’s with a large deployment footprint (ahem…WinXP) having no trouble getting CAPEX budget dollars for extended support once it reaches that support milestone.  We all know that the time and labor costs for Windows 7 migrations have been astronomically high in the enterprise, and many organizations haven’t even started yet.  As a consultant, I had a number of clients that had instances of Windows NT, 95, or XP hanging around to support some legacy application or function, and had no remediation or migration plans for those systems.  I was even asked by one customer to try to virtualize a Windows 3.11 system that ran several functions for their call center order management system and needed to stay active for their suppliers who had the same systems in their shops putting in orders via 56kbps dial-up modems.  For others, Windows 7 migrations are underway, and there is no apetite or budget for planning another desktop migration on any major scale anytime soon.  CIO’s want to avoid disruption, and getting to Win7 is going to be enough for many of them until 2020.

2.  Users have a choice now – will they select a different form factor when choosing to upgrade hardware?  For the first time, users will have reasonable and practical choices in the form factor when they upgrade hardware.  The tablet is here to stay.  Laptops are getting thinner and lighter.  Desktops are quickly becoming the least favored form factor, but are still available and will be for a while.  Pricing aside, there’s a degree of choice available that can decide what OS platform will prevail in different market segments.  As far as Windows 8 is concerned, if Microsoft’s Surface or other manufacturers’ tablets that will offer an OEM’d version of Windows 8 or WinRT see decent adoption, I’d expect that form factor and the notebook form factor to decimate traditional desktop sales, and as such accelerate platform development for an OS or application platform that lends itself better to the consumerization and mobile friendly form factors.  Consequently, if Win8 should fail on any form factor, iOS and Android tablets will take over the market completely and could cement Windows 8’s fate as the last PC OS in Microsoft history.

3.  Low initial enterprise adoption predictions.  Already, several informal surveys of IT leaders and C-suite types are indicating that very few are planning to move to Windows 8 in their organizations.  I’ve seen numbers estimating less than 20% (and I think that’s generous) of IT departments will support Windows 8 within 12 months of its release.  Consumerization and BYO programs may force enterprises to look at it and allow it, but I think those will still be outliers and most won’t offer native deployment or corporate IT support for the OS at first.  This goes back to #1 and the fact that many organizations are not even on Windows 7 yet.  I’d imagine that many may use VDI or app virtualization so that they don’t have to care what the client OS is, avoiding the support and acquisition headache altogether.  And most of those solutions are going to again be based in Windows 7 standards.

4.  Possibility that the numbers game might not work out – many PC’s may either just go away or never get upgraded to Windows 8, for both consumers and enterprise.  Again, companies are not looking to repeat the monumental efforts required to forklift a new OS onto every desktop in the enterprise.  Consumers are often likewise risk-averse.  That 6-year-old PC in your basement, or the 4-year-old call center desktops running XP may just never get upgraded.  Hardware that couldn’t handle the Win7 upgrade sure isn’t going to be a candidate for Win8, so in all likelihood it will stay what it’s on or be replaced/repurposed through app virtualization, VDI, etc.  Those that don’t won’t see the OEM installs of Win8 that would ship with a new PC.  Microsoft cannot count on PC refreshes anymore to be a guaranteed revenue stream for Windows 8.  I am betting that OEM’s will still continue to offer Win7 “downgrades” for both consumers and business PC’s even after Windows 8 comes out.  This scenario would keep Win8 adoption low and protracted.

5.  The Post-PC era will change the face of what we know today as “desktop computing” – which begs the question of whether VDI will remain a practical technology, or we’ll see a trend towards apps/data ubiquity, or will VDI see a use case in keeping the “desktop” alive where needed for legacy needs?   This is the scenario that many have posited – it’s been a topic in many blogs, forums and in the hallways conversations and presentations at recent tech conferences.  It’s pretty much a given, considering current trends in personal and corporate computing, that the way we look at and define “desktop or personal computing” in 5-10 years will be completely different from we do today.  Apps, and more specifically, the data that they allow access to and interaction with, will become the primary development driver for software.  The OS will quickly become less important and less interactive.  Heck, Server 2012 is designed to run best as a “headless” server core OS.  I’d imagine that because of the core code base shared with Windows 8, the “desktop” OS could fade away as well as cloud computing, ubiquitous network access, and other technologies change how we connect and interact with data.  The traditional “desktop” as it exists today may stay as a legacy tool, and technologies such as desktop virtualization or client hypervisors can keep them relevant where they might remain necessary.  For organizations holding onto Windows 7 until 2020, I think by that time the face of computing will have changed and evolved as described to make another iteration of the traditional desktop OS beyond Windows 8 to be somewhat unnecessary and antiquated.

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