Microsoft is in the midst of an unprecedented, massive upgrade cycle for its enterprise software products, a refresh wave that represents a major challenge for CIOs and IT managers responsible for charting their companies' technology strategy.
Not only is Microsoft working on a major revamp of its flagship Windows operating system, but significant upgrades are coming to its Office products, the Explorer browser and a range of back-end enterprise products.
"There's definitely something unique going on here," said Ted Schadler, a Forrester Research analyst.
The current status and expected delivery dates of the various upgrades vary - and in some cases, Microsoft hasn't yet provided specifics - but the overall effort started last year and may carry over to next year.
Unsurprisingly, the vendor is trumpeting the initiative with an intense marketing assault, and CIOs and IT directors must be ready to analyse the individual upgrades to decide which ones make sense for their companies to adopt.
"Microsoft is the strategic supplier. It's far and away the No. 1 most-used workforce technology. That makes it a critical supplier to the enterprise and every CIO needs to be extremely in touch with what Microsoft is doing," Schadler said.
Chief among the upgrades are new versions of Windows OSes for PCs, tablets, servers and possibly even phones. Microsoft says that Windows 8, now in beta testing, is a major revamp of the Windows 7 OS for PCs. It includes a new touch-optimised user interface called Metro designed for tablet devices, which have become popular among enterprise users.
A new version of the Internet Explorer browser, version 10, is also in progress, designed to take advantage of the new features and capabilities in Windows 8, particularly the Metro UI.
Microsoft is also revamping its Office family. The "Office 15" upgrade initiative, now in its early stages, will include new versions of productivity apps like Word, PowerPoint and Excel, and communications and collaboration products like Exchange/Outlook, Lync and SharePoint - both on premise and as part of the cloud-hosted Office 365 suite.
Back-end server and tools products, as well as enterprise applications, are also getting makeovers. These include the company's enterprise database, the new version of which is called SQL Server 2012; the IT management tool System Center; the application development platform Visual Studio; and Dynamics enterprise software applications.
Microsoft, naturally, is doing its best to generate excitement around the new and improved features in these upgrades, making a case for their adoption through sometimes lengthy and frequent blog posts, advertising, appearances by officials at conferences and the like.
However, CIOs and analysts caution against getting seduced by the Microsoft marketing siren call.
"CIOs need to focus on total cost of ownership and return on investment. Once you know what you're currently paying with the TCO analysis, then you can do an ROI assessment," said industry analyst Michael Osterman from Osterman Research.
IT professionals should focus on what their internal organisation's road map looks like, said IDC analyst Al Gillen.
"They should identify what technologies they want to put in place and understand where the gaps are, what's available in the market and what Microsoft's portfolio has today and in forthcoming products," Gillen said. "They need to determine what pieces fit where and what the potential adoption curves will be for their organisation."
CIOs should establish strategies for things like the evolution of their virtualised infrastructure, if and how to adopt cloud computing and the way to deal with mobile devices, including the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) to work issue, he said.
"As you start to work out your organisational approach to address some of these transition challenges, those will in turn generate questions and help you figure out what technologies you need to focus on," Gillen said.
As Microsoft beats the drum to attract attention to its slate of enterprise software upgrades, Cam Crosbie, vice president of IT and CIO of Equitable Life of Canada, isn't paying too much attention to it.
"It's on my radar but just at the periphery right now. It's not something I'm trying to get my head around in terms of strategy," he said.
Equitable Life of Canada is in the midst of a full desktop refresh cycle, standardising its 550 users on Windows 7 and Office 2010, and the plan is to stay on that upgrade for the next several years.
"Ours is a 'take your time approach' to make sure there's value in a potential solution before making the jump," Crosbie said. "A lot of the marketing hype sounds quite good, but we want to make sure that whatever we're looking at has a lot of compelling business value before making the leap."
This is the right approach, especially regarding Windows 8, which is in beta testing and will most likely ship toward the end of the year, said Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst.
Companies need to upgrade from Windows XP, which Microsoft will stop supporting in April 2014, and delaying such a move to wait for Windows 8 would be a mistake, Silver said.
"It's really important that organisations continue to get XP out," he said. "For most people, Windows 8 will be too late and Windows 7 is the one to focus on right now."
Gartner estimates that in developed countries, Windows 7, which began shipping in October 2009, has been fully implemented in about 10% of enterprises, while 55% are in the process of deploying it and 25% are just starting.
In addition to the new Metro UI, Microsoft officials have been promoting Windows 8 enterprise features like Windows To Go, which lets users boot and run Windows 8 from USB devices like flash drives; simpler ways for end users to manage their connections to Wi-Fi and mobile broadband networks; and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) improvements. Windows 8 also features security enhancements, such as a new secure boot process.
In addition to the version for x86 PCs that use chips from Intel and AMD, Windows 8 will also come in a version for devices that use ARM chips. This version, called WOA (Windows on ARM), will be built on the Windows 8 code base and will probably run mainly on tablets built on chips from ARM licensees Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.
Like Windows 8 PCs for x86/64, WOA devices will be able to run Metro-style applications from the Windows Store created using WinRT APIs. WinRT stands for Windows Runtime and contains the API (application programming interface) library for building Metro-style applications.
However, WOA PCs will not run, emulate or port existing x86/64 desktop applications. WOA will include desktop versions of the upcoming Office 15 applications, like Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, that have been designed for touch-based interfaces and for minimal power consumption.
Despite the broad availability of the beta version since late February, it is still too early for enterprises to be even considering adopting Windows 8, IDC's Gillen said.
"Windows 8 isn't even in Release Candidate code yet, so it's premature for most organisations to make any business decision about replacing Windows 7 with Windows 8. We need to see the finished product first," Gillen said.
Gartner's Silver believes that Windows 8 will largely be bypassed altogether, except in specific cases, such as in organisations that want to deploy Windows-based tablets to their users. It has become popular for users to come to work with their personal smartphones and tablets (mostly Android and Apple iOS devices), the BYOD trend. Microsoft wants to enter that party, but Windows is currently a small player in tablets and smartphones.
At hotel titan Hyatt, the work to upgrade desktops from Windows XP to Windows 7 began in 2009 and continues today. The company expects to complete the upgrade of all 34,000 desktops in North America by the end of this year.
Hyatt's CIO, Mike Blake, is very impressed with Windows 7, calling it "a great product." While not closed to Windows 8, Blake said there are still many unanswered questions about the new OS.
"I've wavered from one end of the Microsoft spectrum to the other. I was a hater and now I'm more of a proponent, and a lot of it has to do with Windows 7," he said.
Forrester also has found in its surveys that CIOs are moving their enterprises at a very quick and steady pace to Windows 7 and to Office 2010, according to Schadler. Almost 200 million copies of Office 2010 have been sold to date, according to Microsoft.
In fact, an argument can be made that Microsoft may be pushing out Windows 8 and Office 15 too close to their predecessors, and as such may find it is competing against itself, Osterman said.
"Unless there's something really compelling in Windows 8, I don't see the upgrade push," Osterman said. "And with Office 15, Microsoft is going to be hard-pressed to make the case for it, only because Office 2010 is so good. Microsoft has a very nice set of products on the desktop right now."
Office 15 is in limited-access, early testing. A broader beta period is slated for the summer. Very little is known about technical details and improvements in the Office 15 applications at this point. What Microsoft is saying unequivocally is that Office 15 will be "the most ambitious undertaking yet for the Office Division." The revamped applications, which will also include Project and Visio, will all get new "touch-friendly" UIs on tablets and similar devices.
For now, the Office product that Hyatt's Blake is most focused on is the cloud-hosted email and collaboration suite Office 365 and its predecessor, BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite). Hyatt is deploying BPOS and plans to later upgrade to Office 365, which was released in mid-2011 and includes online versions of Exchange, SharePoint, Office and Lync. Office 365 will be upgraded again once Office 15 is released in final form.
Coming from IBM Lotus Notes, Hyatt has experienced a significant improvement in email reliability and in employee collaboration from using BPOS.
Prior to rolling out BPOS, Hyatt's email system was down 81 times over three years, with each of those outages being 10 minutes long or more. In the 13 months since it has been using Exchange Online, Hyatt has had only three hours of downtime, he said.
Meanwhile, SharePoint Online has taken employees' ability to collaborate with each other and with customers and partners to another level, he said.
Blake, however, isn't too happy with the licensing scheme for BPOS and Office 365, which he finds too complicated, especially considering that they are subscription-based suites.
He wishes the Microsoft suites would be licensed and billed in the "all inclusive" model of rival Google Apps. The Google suite costs $50 per user, per year, or, alternatively, $5 per user, per month. Hyatt almost picked Google Apps over BPOS, ultimately deciding against it in large part due to users' historical familiarity with the Outlook email client. "It was almost a coin toss between the two," Blake said.
Instead, Office 365 has multiple versions at different prices with different mixes of components, and as Hyatt looks ahead at transferring to it from BPOS, Blake finds the licensing scenario annoyingly complex, calling the many versions of Office 365 "crazy" and "foolish."
"With Google Apps, it doesn't matter how many trips to the buffet you make, you're good to go. Microsoft on the other hand segments the salad bar, the starches, the meat, and you have to say, 'did I remember the meat? The starch?' And if you forgot the salad, then you need to pay another license fee for that," Blake said.
Explorer and Windows Phone
In development along with Windows 8 is the next version of the browser, IE 10, which, according to Microsoft, is designed to be "edge-to-edge fast" with "less browser and more web." It will offer two different interface experiences - Metro-style and traditional Windows desktop. IE10 is being designed to take advantage of hardware acceleration features; supports HTML5, CSS3 and other web standards broadly; and will be more secure than its predecessors, Microsoft has said.
Also relevant for enterprise IT executives is the next major version of the Windows Phone OS, which hasn't been officially announced but is said to be code-named Apollo. Some speculate it will be called Windows Phone 8 and that it will provide more code and application consistency with the desktop and server OSes than has existed up to now.
Whatever enhancements are present in Windows Phone 8, Microsoft finds itself - much as in the tablet market - as an underdog in the phone arena. At the end of last year's third quarter, Android held 52.5% of the worldwide mobile operating system market, while Microsoft ended in sixth place with 1.5%, according to Gartner. In the US, as of the end of February of this year, Android had 50.1% of the smartphone OS market, while Microsoft had almost 4%, according to comScore.
When Microsoft does talk in detail about the next major version of Windows Phone, there are two major areas CIOs should focus on, according to Avi Greengart, an analyst with Current Analysis.
The first area is the phone IT security and management controls that will be available to IT departments via Windows server products.
While Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 are in general more advanced than their predecessor, Windows Mobile 6.5, the latter gave IT staffers more administration controls over phones, Greengart said.
"If I was a CIO, I'd be asking for a more detailed road map on what is and isn't supported before I'd commit to deploy Windows Phone," Greengart said.
The other major issue is the level of application compatibility. "There will be some compatibility. The question is how much," Greengart said.
Microsoft recently said in a blog post that "today's Windows Phone applications and games will run on the next major version of Windows Phone."
The company also said that "all" of Windows Phone developers' programming skills "are transferable to building applications for Windows 8, and in many cases, much of your code will be transferable as well."