TechEd2012: Priming Windows 8 for Business

TechEd is Microsoft's conference focused on businesses. This TechEd is anticipating the launch of Windows 8 this year and it is focused on getting businesses to want it. I'm writing this from the second day keynote, which is focused on this platform; the first day keynote was focused on Microsoft's cloud efforts.


Forecasts increasingly are indicating that tablets will replace traditional PCs, ironically something the industry had predicted would, but didn't, happen a decade ago. Bill Gates was right a decade ago; he just didn't anticipate that Apple would drive the change. But this is the year/decade of screen devices, from smartphones to tablets, where data is no longer located primarily on the device but is spread all over the place, in cloud services from Facebook to services like DropBox.


Windows 8 is supposed to take the best of Windows 7 and move it to the present of screen-based devices and cloud services. If Microsoft can convince buyers that Windows 8 is a better solution than Windows 7, or any of the competing alternatives, then it continues to dominate the desktop. If it can't, then we move into a post-Microsoft world. The key point is not choice, but not having to choose. We are not talking about vendor choice but hardware choice. Instead of having to choose between home and work, between tablet and laptop, you have one device that does it all. Like all hybrid products, the goal isn't being best at any one thing but being adequate at the majority of them.


The demonstration was of a Samsung tablet with a larger panoramic screen. The larger screen isn't as portable as the traditional 10-inch screen, but it is far more useful for work. Security, rather than being a password, is a series of easily remembered gestures. Using Metro navigation between the apps is fast and intuitive, and zooming out provides you with a view of all of the application tiles, and you can group the tiles in any way you like. In addition, you can customize your keyboard, changing it from the traditional QWERTY format to one that is optimized for thumb typing (handy if you want to two-hand type while holding the pad).


The demonstration application was Beer Ranger, which is custom app for a beer distributor (CRM app). The app quickly moved from mode to mode, schedules to mapping (so that you could easily go from an appointment to mapping directions to it). The demonstrator is showcasing a series of new skills where you swipe or tap to rapidly move around the app, between apps, and back to the start screen. This showcases what is often a big problem with a new UI: Existing users find it very hard to learn the new skills, but new users (read kids) can figure them out in seconds. It is one of the annoying parts of being an experienced user.


Search is integrated, if you are looking for a particular file and can remember a part of the file or some content, you type in that word and the related drafts across the compliant apps. CRM files, emails, calendar items, and other stuff come up so you can quickly find related work (and I imagine find stuff you had forgotten all about).


Laptops and Windows 8


One of the big complaints about Windows 8 so far has been the use of it when you don't have touch. They used a Samsung Notebook (Samsung is getting a lot of air time) to showcase navigation without touch. They used a touchpad on the notebook to showcase that a touchpad can be used in a similar way to touch on the screen. (Recall this is what Apple argued was better on a notebook, anyway, but personally once you have a touch screen it is difficult to go back to a touchpad.) If you go down to where the start button used to be, you get a pop-up icon that will give you the metro interface. Funny thing, I've been using Windows 8 for some time and didn't know I could do that and it addresses one of my personal annoyances. I think this showcases that you really need to spend more time exploring this new UI than I initially did and once again points to the advantages a new user will have over an experienced user (experienced users tend not to explore a new platform, which is why it often takes us longer to learn it).


Overall, I left this demo convinced I hadn't given Windows 8 a long enough chance without a touch screen (I got annoyed fast and moved to a touch-screen laptop instead). I still think touch screen is better, but I can see how I could learn to use, and maybe even like, a non-touch screen notebook.


Looking to the Future for Windows 8


Next, they moved to a SAP demo looking at sales pipeline. You could use touch to manipulate and adjust the pipeline based on changes in performance and better forecast quarterly sales. This was a small enhancement to an existing application and they then moved to showcase the Windows App store, which gives you a description, requirements, and cost of an app. This feels like a usability improvement over other app stores and likely showcases one of the advantages of coming late: You can learn from the mistakes of others and don't have as much risk of pissing off existing users who will fight any change.


The Microsoft Hypervisor is part of Windows 8 and this allows you to run older versions of Windows underneath Windows 8 to address compatibility issues. For this, they used a Lenovo convertible. They then ran a game (cut the rope) in both Windows 7 and Windows 8 modes side by side to showcase differences (critical if you are developing or validating a newer version of an older approved app). Now one of the cool features is the ability to put an IT approved image on a USB key and then have the employee boot from it on their own hardware. They used an old Dell computer and it booted Windows 8 from the USB key. In a BYOD world, this bitlocked technology could allow IT to deploy an approved image on hardware the employee owns and, when the employee leaves, they just disable or get the USB key back and the employee doesn't have to wipe or turn in their own hardware.


Windows on ARM (Windows RT) was brought out on a text tablet. It is always encrypted, the applications are fully curated, and it is fully centrally manageable (including provisioning), arguably making it much more enterprise ready. For new apps, IT pushes out the icon to the user, who then clicks on it to install it before use (installation for the demo apps showcases cell phone-like speeds measured in seconds not minutes). Finally, they showcased the touch versions of Office on ARM. I still wonder if the ARM version of this product won't be more popular than the x86 version. It seems so much simpler.


Wrapping Up


The audience seemed to be the most excited about the hypervisor and USB demonstrations. Given that this is an IT-centric audience, that shouldn't be a surprise. Over time, IT has had less and less to say about what operating system and hardware the user gets. Increasingly, those decisions are made by the line managers or the employees. Providing choice is seen as a way to entice new employees, much like providing the ability to choose their own tools can often be used as enticements for engineers, mechanics, architects and other craftsmen. IT saw the features they liked but the open question for Windows 8 is whether the users will find it compelling and that likely waits for two things. Those two things are compelling Windows 8 hardware and a unique Windows 8 application or experience that buyers will chase. The hardware showcased at Computex was compelling but the applications are being developed as I write this. Microsoft remains on track but user contact with the most critical parts is still in the future.

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