Microsoft has long been the supreme leader of personal computing, with Windows 7 and prior versions of the operating used by more than 1 billion people worldwide. But since Windows 7 came out in 2009, the world has caught tablet fever, and Microsoft now faces a brave new world in which PCs are losing territory to more portable touchscreen devices.
Windows is still the dominant PC operating system, but PC sales have shrunk. In the third quarter, worldwide unit shipments dropped 8.6 percent year-on-year – a “severe slump” due in part to pressure from tablets and smartphones, according to IDC.
Meanwhile, tablets are flying off the shelves. Gartner forecasts worldwide media tablet sales 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, while Microsoft is expected to ship in only 4.8 million tablets this year.
Making Microsoft's position worse is the BYOD (bring your own device) trend, whereby millions of people worldwide now use their personal smartphones and tablets at work. Android phones, iPads and iPhones have invaded workplaces while Microsoft hasn't been able to fight back.
Windows 8, which launched two weeks ago is Microsoft's attempt to make a run at the tablet market, with Windows Phone 8 taking on a similar role in the smartphone market.
The new tile-based user interface, formerly called Metro, is a radical redesign meant to optimise the OS for touchscreens. Windows 8 is also designed to work on desktops and laptops using keyboards and mice.
However, some observers are skeptical, saying that the new interface could be a deal-breaker for enterprise buyers who find it too different, and thus counterproductive and inconvenient. Furthermore, a majority of companies have either recently finished migrating to Windows 7 from Windows XP or are in the process of doing so, and are therefore not ready to invest in another upgrade.
At an event in London yesterday, Microsoft attempted to win over enterprise customers by setting out the business advantages of Windows 8. Erwin Visser, Microsoft's central marketing organisation manager, said these fall into three categories: mobility, security and virtualisation.
Visser highlighted a number of enterprise features in Windows 8 that are intended to help organisations become more mobile.
The first is support for 3G and/or 4G connectivity, alongside WiFi. Microsoft allows data usage to be monitored and organisations can set policies around how employees use mobile broadband, in order to manage costs.
Windows 8 also includes support for DirectAccess – VPN-like technology that provides intranet connectivity to client computers when they are connected to the Internet. Unlike many traditional VPN connections, which must be initiated and terminated by explicit user action, DirectAccess connections are designed to connect automatically as soon as the computer connects to the Internet.
“From the moment I log in as a user within Microsoft, I can immediately have access to all the information that's relevant for me, like my line of business apps and my Sharepoint documents,” said Visser.
“It's great for end users, and it's also great for organisations because when an endpoint is connected with DirectAccess through any Internet connection, the IT organisation can manage that device as if it was inside their firewall. They can administrate that device, they can monitor it, patch it, deploy software – anything I can do within my firewall I can do with a DirectAccess-connected system.”
Another key enterprise mobility feature in Windows 8 is Windows To Go, which allows Windows 8 Enterprise to boot and run from mass storage devices such as a USB flash drive or external hard disk drive.
Microsoft product manager Brad McCabe demonstrated that, with a Windows To Go drive, users can effectively carry their complete corporate PC around in their pocket – including their desktop image, all of their apps, and all of their data, running on Windows 8.
The USB drive is encrypted using BitLocker to prevent data loss. When the USB drive is plugged into a computer, the computer's own hard drive goes offline, so nothing is cached and there is no risk of data leakage.
One cool feature of Windows To Go is that if the USB drive accidentally comes unplugged, Windows pauses the entire system and resumes operation immediately if the drive is re-inserted within 60 seconds of removal. If the drive is not inserted in that time-frame, the computer shuts down to prevent possible sensitive information being displayed on the screen or stored in RAM.
“If you think about the enterprise scenarios of Windows to Go, it's people bringing in their personal device and the enterprise can give a corporate image,” said Visser.
“Contractors that are coming in with their own PCs; it's an ultra mobile scenario for people that are travelling; and we have customers that are implementing it where they put PCs on job sites so that people can just go to a job site and plug in their own environments.”