Microsoft certainly made a big splash Tuesday with its demonstrations of Windows 8 at the BUILD conference in Anaheim, and it's easy to see why. The new platform is a surprisingly radical departure from the traditional Windows paradigm.
There are clearly going to be lots of improvements in Windows 8, including snappier performance, multiplatform support, and improved security features. Then, of course, there's Metro, the software's new, mobile-style interface, which will likely appeal to an increasingly mobile-minded world of consumers.
In many ways, in fact, Metro reminds me a lot of Unity, the new desktop environment Canonical brought from the netbook side and made standard for desktop versions of its Ubuntu Linux as well. Particularly for Linux, which doesn't enjoy the desktop dominance Windows does, borrowing some familiarity from the mobile side is a great way to bring in new users, as I've said before.
For business users, however, I'm not at all sure Windows 8 is going to be the right choice for cross-platform use, and that's because of Metro. Metro looks great for working on tablets or other mobile platforms, but not for employees spending long periods of time on desktop computers. Here's why I think businesses should consider carefully before they jump to Windows 8 across the board.
1. Content consumption vs. content production
Windows 8's Metro user interface mimics interfaces commonly found on tablets and smartphones. For average consumers, this makes a lot of sense, since that type of interface is what they're used to on the mobile platforms they spend so much time on.
But average consumers are generally mostly interested in consuming content - watching videos on YouTube, browsing the Web, and sharing photos on Facebook, for example. For that reason, their needs are very different from the needs of those on the business side, who are generally much more focused on producing content than consuming it. Accessing content tends to involve quick touches, swipes or keystrokes; creating it requires much more involved interaction with the computer.
Longtime users of desktop Ubuntu have complained bitterly about Unity, which many feel gets in the way of doing real work, and I think it will be much the same thing with Metro for many business purposes. There will clearly be some exceptions, but when you're spending many hours a day on a desktop - as countless business users still do - I can't fathom why you'd want a touch interface at all.
Touch is great when you're working in a small space that's somewhere around the span of your outstretched hand; with a large screen on the desktop, a very tired arm is all I can imagine. It's just not the right interface for long periods of intensive work on a large screen.
I know the traditional Windows desktop will still be available, and that's certainly a good thing. But the fact that it won't be the default speaks volumes about Microsoft's direction moving forward; it sounds to me like the days of the non-touch interface are numbered in the Windows world.
2. Productivity losses
While some employees - who, after all, are consumers as well - may get up to speed on Windows 8 quickly, I don't think that's generally going to be the case.
Users tend to hate change - consider the strong reactions to the Ribbon in Office, for example - and with such a massive paradigm shift, the learning curve alone will be a hit for productivity as users get used to a whole new way of doing things. Throw in the klunkiness of a touch-based, mobile-style interface for long periods of work at a desktop computer, however, and the productivity blow could be significant.
3. The hardware question
Microsoft made a big deal of the fact that it won't require new hardware to upgrade to Windows 8, but it's a little trickier than that. If you want the touch features, you will need new hardware if yours is among the many companies whose hardware isn't already touch-enabled. If you don't want the touch features, that's one less reason to upgrade in the first place.
Windows 8 will clearly offer considerable new benefits for businesses in some areas, and it certainly sounds like it could be a reasonable choice for tablet use, for example. But with its Metro interface, it's by no means going to be the right cross-platform choice for every company. At least for desktop use, sticking with Windows 7 - or, better yet, switching to Linux - may be a better plan.