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Windows 8 Does Not Have to be a Disaster

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Gartner, IT-journalists and even former employees of Microsoft agree: Windows 8 will be a disaster. The Metro interface designed for tablets (a market that virtually does not exist in relation to MS-Windows) is unworkable on a desktop with a vertical non-touch screen, keyboard and mouse. Most office spaces still have this and most run legacy applications with interfaces that rely on a Windows PC using a keyboard and mouse. It is precisely the ongoing purchase of desktop PCs with the combination of MS-Windows and MS Office that has kept Microsoft financially afloat over the last 15 years

The combination of legacy applications (mostly proprietary) and familiarity with MS Office, led many IT organisations to automatically buy the new Windows platform, despite the high cost of licences and support. The inevitable result is a world of pain, with new interfaces, a lack of compatibility and the sudden cessation of support for critical components. IT policy is organised around coping with these problems instead of focusing on sustainable alternative solutions. And solving or mitigating these problems requires so much time and money that there is often little left over to plan further ahead. Thus, in many organisations the perfect vicious circle has existed for so long that many IT people can not even see it.

An important point here is that Windows 8 is only a disaster for those who buy it and those who are unsuccessfully trying to sell it. For the rest of us, it is irrelevant. So if you use a Windows7 PC, Mac or Linux machine, is very easy to just let all this misery pass you by. After a disastrous version of Windows is released, another (slightly less) catastrophic version (think ME/XP or Vista/7) will follow, and for those who still genuinely believe that they need a Microsoft operating system, they merely hope that a half-decent version will come along in a few years.

Organisations that (virtually) no longer have platform-dependent applications because they have (to) provide a web interface, have no reason at all to even think about purchasing proprietary operating systems. Organisations that do use these applications are better just sticking with earlier (already purchased) versions of MS Windows, so that all interfaces remain compatible and end users can continue working in their familiar environment. The IT department's resulting spare time and money can be used to break the vendor lock between applications and platforms.

Most application vendors are now thinking about web interfaces, or APIs for tablet apps (even if it is just to keep company directors happily playing with their iPads). Application vendors who are not yet doing this should understand that in times of tough cuts IT euros can only be spent once, either with them or with Microsoft. Seems an easy choice, right? Fortunately, even company-specific applications do not last forever and when the time comes where there is something new to choose from it is useful to calculate the TCO of applications by including the underlying infrastructure costs (licences, management, security), and compare this to the TCO of applications that do not have such dependencies. Conversely, you can also say to your hoster: “I do not care what platform you run my applications on, but what would I have to pay you if it is an open source stack?”. A little negotiation is always possible in a stagnant market.

As with Vista, the main victims of Microsoft's iPad-wannabe software are the basic PC consumers - those who buy a PC or laptop from a retailer and get a machine with a pre-installed disaster. In the coming years many IT professionals will have to deal with family, friends and acquaintances crying down the phone because they cannot find or use their favorite or essential PC applications. It will be Vista revisited. Do your friends a favour and downgrade them to Win7 if needed or upgrade them to Ubuntu if possible. The main reason why home users still want Windows is for gaming. Fortunately, people have worked hard on alternatives, including by previously mentioned former employees.

Although I dislike the iPad because of its extremely locked-down platform, tablets (with the first iPad) have presented to non-techies, for the first time in 20 years, a completely different platform to the Windows PC. So for the first time in aeons there is a widespread discussion about possible alternatives. Once we take that mental step, we open the way to discuss IT policy that really starts with the question of how best functionality is achieved at the lowest possible cost (which may also lead to discussing the underlying platform).

If Microsoft's profit margins on the Windows/Office combo are cut back to 20% (it is currently 60-80%) the TCO figures will be more reasonable. Like IBM, over the years Microsoft will become an ordinary business providing rather boring-but-sometimes-necessary products at more normal profit margins. And that, except for the shareholders, is not a disaster.


Update: in the week after publishing the Dutch original of this column a few dozen governments organisations in the Netherlands promptly made my point with the total loss of network functionality from a nasty Windows virus. The infection is still going on and the dataloss and privacy implications of the breach is still being investigated. many sysadmins have been working overtime to contain the problem. Of course there will be another one of these six months from now and so on and so on. This has been going on for years.