Among the raft of recent and upcoming Microsoft upgrades, Windows 8 towers in importance but its chances for success remain cloudy among enterprise customers.
While Windows 8 is getting automatically pushed onto new PCs and tablets to consumers, its acceptance in the enterprise is expected to be a tougher sell. Most enterprises have either recently upgraded from XP to Windows 7 or are in the process of doing so, and thus unlikely to embark again so soon on another OS refresh, according to various surveys.
It was on the strength of its dominant OS position on desktops and laptops that Microsoft built its successful product portfolio for enterprises, including client-side applications like Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint and server-side software like SQL Server, SharePoint and Exchange.
As the company worked furiously throughout most of 2012 to put the finishing touches on Windows 8, the sense of urgency among its executives was evident, given the anemic share of Windows 7 on tablets, devices which have become tremendously popular not only among consumers but also in workplaces. With Windows 8, which sports a radically different interface optimized for touchscreens, CEO Steve Ballmer and his generals expect Microsoft to significantly improve its share of tablet OSes. In the past two years or so, droves of people have brought to work their personal iOS and Android smartphones and tablets and Windows has a minuscule share of those markets. As with Windows 8 in tablets, Microsoft has high hopes for Windows Phone 8 to improve its smartphone OS sales.
But so far, Windows 8 has gotten mixed reviews, and industry analysts, Microsoft partners and customers remain divided on their expectations for success of the new OS.
Mark Newton, vice president of operations at TeleMate.Net Software, a Microsoft Certified Partner that makes an Internet filter appliance for businesses called NetSpective, calls the new Windows 8 touch-optimized interface "annoying" and "unintuitive." He refers to the new interface's Live Tiles icons as "big square blotches on the screen" that "don't make efficient use of the desktop space."
The interface, he said, is clearly for tablets. "It doesn't play well in the desktop."
And while Windows 8 also has an alternate interface that more closely resembles the traditional Windows 7 desktop, Newton is also unimpressed by it. He dislikes that it doesn't have the Start button, and that it doesn't offer Windows 7's familiar menu system.
He would have been less irritated if Microsoft had made it possible for IT administrators to set the traditional desktop as the main, default interface in their company's PCs, but that isn't an option.
At TeleMate.Net, he put Windows 8 on a couple of tech-savvy employees' PCs and they quickly requested to be switched back to Windows 7. "They said to put Windows 7 back in there because they had to use their computers."
TeleMate.Net has Windows 8 on the machines of a few developers who are working to tweak the NetSpective software for the new OS, but the company will keep the other 20 or so other employees on Windows 7.
"I'm not going to push Windows 8 out to everyone's desktop until there's a valid and compelling reason to do so, and right now it doesn't exist. Windows 7 is very stable, very robust," he said.
He would have made the same decision at his previous job, where he held a similar position, but oversaw about 5,000 end users.
"There's no way I would have ever agreed to deploy Windows 8 to 5,000 desktops and then have to go and figure out how to explain to people how to use the new interface and train them," he said.
In other places, Windows 8 is getting a warmer reception, including by early adopters Seton Hall University, British Telecom and the Emirates airline.
"Windows 8 is great for business because it delivers the experiences people love while providing organizations with the IT controls they require," said Jason Campbell, a Microsoft senior product manager.
"Many organizations across a wide variety of industries are taking advantage of Windows 8," he added.
At CB Engineers in San Francisco, IT Director Jack Mou plans to replace all company laptops -- about 15 -- with Windows 8 tablets and laptops next year, displacing also a number of iPads employees bring from home.
But although Mou considers Windows 8 superior to its predecessor, he concluded that on the desktop it doesn't offer enough improvements to warrant upgrading from Windows 7.
"For the desktop deployment, unless otherwise requiring touchscreen and [stylus] pen inputs, I don't find it necessary to upgrade if you are already on Windows 7," he said via e-mail.
Of course, Microsoft begs to differ. Part of its massive marketing effort for Windows 8 has focused on convincing enterprises to adopt the new OS.
Microsoft has trumpeted improvements in security, virtualization, backup/restore, performance and IT management. For example, Windows To Go lets users boot and run Windows 8 from USB devices like flash drives. The OS also offers simpler ways for end users to manage their Wi-Fi and cellular broadband connections.
At TechEd North America in June, Antoine Leblond, corporate VP of Windows Web Services, declared Windows 8 "enterprise-ready by design" and "a better Windows" than Windows 7.
Still, the lack of enthusiasm for Windows 8 on desktop PCs expressed by Mou and Newton is consistent with what IT analyst firms have heard from customers.
"Overall, most organizations will look at Windows 8 for specific users and scenarios, and not for broad deployments," said Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst.
For example, a company may choose Windows 8 for a new fleet of tablets, or to refresh their laptop fleet with new Windows 8 "hybrids" that have touchscreens as well as keyboards, trackpads and mice.
Forrester Research recently said that the interest level among IT decision makers for Windows 8 is about half of what it was for Windows 7 in the third quarters of 2012 and 2009, respectively. (Both products shipped in late October, three years apart.)
The Forrester findings are based on surveys of IT decision makers in Europe and North America, in which 24 percent of respondents polled in 2012 said they expected to migrate to Windows 8 at some point, while 49 percent had given a similar answer about Windows 7 in 2009.
"IT decision makers are expressing concern about the new UI, because they believe it's going to require new training and additional support to get people used to it," said David Johnson, a Forrester analyst.
TeleMate.Net's Newton concurs. "Any large-scale deployment of Windows 8 is going to have a negative impact on productivity in the business world, because people will be spinning their wheels trying to figure out how to do this, how to do that," he said.
In addition, the security, manageability and performance enhancements in Windows 8 are notable, but not enough to prompt enterprises to embark on a broad desktop upgrade right after moving from XP to Windows 7, Forrester's Johnson said.
Even in cases where an enterprise will consider Windows 8 specifically for a tablet rollout, IT managers need to consider certain issues with the new OS. For starters, it's a bigger, heavier OS than iOS and Android, so Windows 8 tablets will generally consume more resources, and thus may be bulkier, costlier and more battery hungry, he said.
"I'm not sure that's a tradeoff tablet buyers are willing to make," Johnson said.
Windows RT, the Windows 8 version designed for lighter, smaller ARM-based devices, isn't as enterprise friendly as the standard Windows 8 for x86 Intel and AMD machines.
For example, Windows RT can't run existing applications for Windows 7 and older Windows versions; it can only run new applications built for it and offered via the new Windows Store.
Also, while Windows RT comes with its own version of Office, the suite isn't licensed for business use. Plus, the Outlook e-mail client software ubiquitous in enterprises can't be installed on Windows RT machines. Windows RT also lacks many IT management tools and features present in Windows 8.
IT managers also need to carefully review their business applications, and whether their vendors are supporting them on Windows 8, Gartner's Silver said.
Yes, applications built for Windows 7 should work on Windows 8 for x86, but just because a Windows 7 application runs on Windows 8 doesn't automatically mean that the application vendor will offer customers support for it if something goes wrong while using it on the new OS, Silver said.
In particular, IT managers must be aware that the only IE browser that runs on Windows 8 is the new IE 10, so any applications that currently depend on earlier versions need to be tested, he said.
While Windows 7 applications are supposed to run on the traditional Windows 8 desktop, Silver predicts that many third-party software vendors will not rush to port their applications to the new Windows 8 interface.
"In supporting the new interface is where you'll see application vendors drag their feet because today, especially in the enterprise, there is no big audience for those applications yet," he said.
Still, some application developers are jumping at the opportunity of creating Windows 8 applications for tablets. Toyota Racing Development, Toyota's motor sports arm in North America, is reworking a Windows 7 application called Trackside.
This application is designed to help NASCAR racing teams affiliated with Toyota to sharpen their performance on the track, especially during practice sessions, by recording lap times, plotting graphs and generating comparisons with competitors.
For that reason, it will be much more effective when deployed on smaller, touchscreen tablets as opposed to in regular laptops like it is today, said Darren Jones, group lead of software development at Toyota Racing Development.
"The driver can now sit in the car with all safety equipment on and mine through the data, put in his own input on how the car is handling and give it to the crew chief," Jones said.
The application, which is exclusively for Toyota racing partners and is thus not commercially sold, was tested towards the end of this year's Nascar season and is expected to be finished by the time the next season starts, he said.
As 2012 draws to a close, Windows 8 is engaged in its own race. It's crucial for Microsoft that Windows 8 give the company a presence in the tablet market, and in particular among enterprises.
Tablet sales ignited with the release of the first iPad in 2010, roughly six months after Windows 7 came out. At the same time, PC sales have shrunk. In the third quarter, worldwide unit shipments dropped 8.6 percent year-on-year, a drop IDC called "severe" and attributed to market pressure from tablets and smartphones.
Gartner forecasts worldwide media tablet sales to end users to total 119 million units in 2012, up 98 percent compared with 2011. Gartner expects Apple's iOS to continue its dominance with a projected share of over 61 percent. Windows is expected to ship in only 4.8 million tablets this year.
Microsoft is so focused on improving its position in the tablet OS market that it's risking angering its hardware partners by selling its own Surface device both with Windows RT and soon with Windows 8.
"We truly re-imagined Windows, and we kicked off a new era for Microsoft, and a new era for our customers," Ballmer said during the Windows 8 launch event in late October.
Later, he said: "Our enterprise customers will also love the new Windows 8 devices."
As the year ends, 2013 will provide a clearer view into Windows 8's acceptance in the enterprise and into its chances of success and failure there, and whether it will be for Microsoft an era characterized by success or disappointment.