When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer mentioned at the Gartner Symposium and IT Summit in Orlando last week that Microsoft's biggest risk was the next version of Windows, he caused a lot of speculation. What, everyone has been wondering, would be in the new Windows 8 that makes it such a big risk? The concern, of course, is that it will be such a huge change from Windows 7 that nobody will buy it.
Actually, there is a good likelihood that Windows 8 will appear with less than a rousing welcome, but it's not clear that Microsoft can do anything about it. The real problem lies with Windows XP, after all.
If you're like most companies, you know what I mean. About 60 percent of all Windows users are still using XP, despite its obsolescence. For companies that are trying to upgrade, the process is painful, expensive and labor intensive. For companies that are simply letting evolution take its course, the process isn't happening very fast.
There are two reasons that the process lags. The first is that there's no easy upgrade path from Windows XP to Windows 7 unless you're willing to buy the migration software from LapLink (which is well worth it) or a few other companies with similar products. Otherwise, moving your applications and data from Windows XP to Windows 7 is not easy to accomplish, even if the hardware will support it, which a lot will.
But there's still plenty of computer equipment in active use that isn't quite up to the level that's necessary for a move to Windows 7, though it is still perfectly adequate for Windows XP. Where it's in use, it's performing good, useful work, it's adding to the company's productivity, and it's not taking a huge amount of management time. So the need to upgrade isn't there unless the company is buying a new computer anyway. Then, you get Windows 7 as part of the deal, you migrate your data to the new machine, and you're ready to go. It's somewhat easier than trying to do an in-place upgrade on an existing machine, and it's a lot cheaper, since the operating system comes with the hardware.
But now comes Windows 8. You're still struggling through the morass of Windows XP upgrades, only to learn that in a couple of years you'll be expected to upgrade again. But right now, there's no way to know whether your new computers will support Windows 8, and there's no way to know what impact this will have on your applications. Feeling tired? It's no surprise. After a long respite, Microsoft has started up the upgrade treadmill, and no matter what happens, it's going to cost you money. The problem is that you don't know how much money.
To make matters worse, Microsoft has shown a disturbing tendency to decide that your computer hardware is obsolete before you're ready to write it off. It may be perfectly functional, but it won't work, and you get to take the charge-off. For some companies, the cost is just too high, and they won't make the transition, especially now that they know that their upgrade to Windows 7 will soon be overcome by a requirement for Windows 8.
Steve Ballmer is right to be worried about the risk. A lot of companies can't afford a three-year equipment replacement cycle and are likely to decide that they can live without Windows 8. Maybe it would help if Windows 8 offered something compelling over previous versions, without also seeming like you were being forced into an upgrade you couldn't afford.