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.”
Visser said that some organisations are also planning to use Windows to Go as backup. So for example they might start giving people in their organisation a Windows to Go device in case something goes wrong with their tablet or laptop.
It also enables people to test Windows 8 on their current PCs without doing a full upgrade. Window To Go works on any Windows-certified system, which means that it won't work on most Apple Mac computers.
Security continues to be one of the big responsibilities of any big IT organisation. Visser said that many security improvements were made in Windows 7, but Microsoft is keen to keep innovating in this area.
Windows 8 supports a feature of the UEFI specification known as Trusted Boot, which uses a public-key infrastructure to verify the integrity of the operating system and prevent unauthorised programs such as rootkits from infecting the device.
“What that means for customers is two things. One is that it becomes virtually impossible to get rootkit viruses on any certified Windows 8 system,” said Visser
“The second thing you will see is that this process significantly speeds up the boot process. If you take two comparable devices with Windows 7 and Windows 8, you will see that Windows 8 boots significantly faster.”
McCabe demonstrated that when a rootkit was introduced to a Windows 8 machine, the device realised during boot-up that something had attacked and tampered with the startup files and went into automatic recovery mode.
All the drivers and critical startup files were scanned to identify the ones that had been compromised, and the machine then attempted repairs by restoring those that had been damaged from backup copies on Windows.
Microsoft has also enabled an enhanced version of BitLocker in Windows 8 that not only encrypts all the data on the PC but also supports data-only encryption, which means that new users can start encrypting the data and not the whole drive.
Virtual smartcards have also been included, enabling organisations to put their smartcard certificate on a Windows 8 device. This means customers can have two-factor authentication (the device with the certificate and the password), without the cost of running physical smartcards.
“The support of physical smart cards is very costly in an enterprise. If you look at the data, it's often a top three support issue. People lose them, so a lot of helpdesk tickets are around the management of those smartcards,” said Visser.
A number of organisations are now looking at implementing a virtual desktop infrastructure, in order to reduce the cost of deploying new applications and enable secure remote access to their enterprise desktop environments.
“One of the poster child cases for VDI is organisations that outsource their application development to other countries – let's say for example a bank that has people in India developing some of their banking applications,” said Visser.
“They want to keep their development system and the source code within their country, but give people in that other country secure access to that information. VDI is a great scenario to implement that.”
With Windows 8, Microsoft has tried to make running Windows in the data centre with VDI as close as possible to running Windows 8 locally. This includes improving the 3D HD graphic experience and enabling full touch support, so touch-based VDI clients are just as responsive as standard devices.
Windows 8 also includes local USB support. McCabe explained that, traditionally, if a session is running in the data centre and the user wants to plug in a USB headset, it would have to plug directly into the server, which is usually impractical. With Windows 8, the USB port can be redirected from the local device into a VDI session on the server.
He demonstrated plugging a camera into a laptop via USB and logging into a VDI session running in the data centre. The image and the UI that was rendered back down to the machine had no lag, and behaved as if it had been processed directly on the machine.
“It's that local-like experience, even though I'm running in VDI,” said McCabe.
No compromise business tablet
Visser said that, despite Microsoft's obvious attempt to appeal to consumers and tap into the BYOD trend, Windows 8 is very much an enterprise-grade operating system that bring your personal life and business life together on one device.
“We are making no compromises to the role that enterprise IT plays. We continue to support all the security requirements that they have,” he said.
“We want to help them take down management costs of mobile devices, so that they can invest more in areas that are important for their innovation, and we also want to make sure that they can support the compliance rules that third parties and governments ask from them.”
He said that all Windows 7 apps that organisations are running today can also run on Windows 8, so the investments that they have made over the last years will not be wasted. The infrastructure that Microsoft customers are using today is also compatible with Windows 8, so they can start bringing in Windows 8 side by side with Windows 7 without making significant infrastructure investments.
Moreover, Windows 8 includes the option for users to switch from the tile-based user interface back to a more traditional Windows 7 desktop interface.
This means that a salesman could take a Windows 8 tablet out on the road with him and use the “Metro” interface in meetings with clients, and then dock the tablet with a keyboard when he gets back to the office and have his full productivity environment with my desktop apps available on the same device.
While Windows 8 is clearly an attractive option for enterprise customers using tablets and portable touchscreen devices, the business proposition for Windows 8 on desktop PCs is less clear.
When Techworld asked if there was a role for Windows 8 on the desktop, Visser said that Windows 8 is the best Windows version out there, so whether it is used on desktops, laptops or tablets it is still a worthwhile investment.
“Of course there's experiences with Windows 8 that come to life with touch that you will not have if you don't have touch, but still if you look at it from a fundamentals perspective – boot time, performance, security, manageability – all these aspects are improved with Windows 8, and even if you don't have a touch-based device, there is significant value in Windows 8,” he said.
BT, which has been using Windows 8 as part of an early adopters programme, said that the best experience on Windows 8 is on a brand new device, running an SSD, with a touchscreen, but Windows 8 runs well on other devices and is a better experience than Windows 7.
Visser admitted that a lot of customers will bring in Windows 8 through new devices, rather than upgrading old hardware, but said that the true was same with Windows 7.
“We're very bullish about the opportunity for enterprises with Windows 8. Some customers will deploy end to end, some will just start with specific scenarios, and for a significant amount of customers that will be the entry point,” he said.