By Dale Vile
Businesses bought into Windows two decades go. Many IT professionals today, in fact, can’t remember a time when Microsoft didn’t dominate in desktop and notebook space. We may have seen a few Macs being adopted by VIP users and creative staff, and perhaps a bit of Linux here and there, but it’s still largely a Windows world when it comes to PC class machines in business today.
So if businesses are that bought in, why not extend the reach of Windows beyond workstations and notebooks to tablets and smartphones? As this 30-second marketing video suggests, running Windows ‘everywhere’ would allow a consistent user experience to be delivered across all classes of device.
Such a proposition could arguably be attractive to IT departments trying to resist the influx of iOS and Android devices onto their network, which they are not always geared up to handle. If you have to accommodate mobile devices, life will be easier if they all run a familiar operating system that you know how to secure, manage and support.
But there’s a snag with this reasoning. When Microsoft speaks of Windows running across all device types, it’s not referring to the operating system underpinning most desktop computing activity today. Indeed it’s not even talking about the familiar Windows desktop experience from a user interface perspective. What it’s really promoting is Microsoft’s ‘modern’ tile-based interface across all form factors.
At the time of writing, this kind of Windows everywhere strategy would mean deploying three relatively new operating systems (Windows Phone 8, Windows 8 RT and Windows 8 for x86), and three different application development, deployment and administration models. This would be in addition to maintaining the application and operations model already in place to handle the classic Windows x86 environments such as Windows 7 or Windows 8 in ‘desktop’ mode.
Even if, as rumoured, Microsoft consolidates its range of Windows platforms, this certainly isn’t the ‘write once, deploy anywhere, manage consistently’ approach that many IT professionals crave.
But despite all this, surely there is still value in delivering a consistent user experience across all devices, right?
Well perhaps theoretically, but the point is moot. We have already moved to a multi-platform world in relation to mobile computing in business, and we aren’t coming back any time soon. Furthermore, even if you conclude that the latest/modern Windows interface is the most desirable and efficient of all options available, it doesn’t come with two important benefits that Windows users have taken for granted over the years.
Beyond operational considerations, Windows stickiness on workstations and notebooks has been largely down to user familiarity and investment in applications, both of which are sacrificed as soon as you step away from the traditional desktop environment. Worse than that, as you enter the domain of mobile and touch, user familiarity and historical app investment are already firmly associated with other platforms.
For many users, the iPhone was the first real smartphone they ever experienced, and they have stuck with it through multiple generations of hardware and software, acquiring apps along the way. And just like Windows on the desktop, it really doesn’t matter if objective reviewers declare alternatives to be better; users in both a consumer and business context tend to stay with what they know and what they have spent money on, and are generally not interested in changing.
We can obviously broaden this familiarity and app investment debate and discuss the obsessive loyalty of Mac users, the vigorous advocates of Android, and the-die hard defenders of BlackBerry. The point, however, is that whichever way you look at it, it is hard to imagine how the notion of Windows everywhere is ever going to gain traction given where users and businesses are today.
Does any of this mean Windows is not viable on smartphones and tablets? Of course not, but it’s going to coexist with other more established platforms. And as time goes on, this is likely to be true on workstations and notebooks too. Apple is already chipping away at desktop Windows with the Mac for certain types of user. As applications are increasingly run from the network or the cloud, ChromeBooks and other forms of thin client computing will also become more viable and attractive.
Against this background, our advice to anyone reviewing their end user computing strategy is to shake off any Windows-centric mind-set that might exist, and adopt a more open and inclusive approach. Fortunately, that’s the way management software vendors are going, including Microsoft. Going open and agnostic on the device front therefore needn’t mean abandoning existing tools, policies and processes, just extending their reach.