Beyond the Hype: Why You Should Consider Windows 8
With features like Windows To Go and DirectAccess, Windows 8 can rise above the controversy to be a solid OS for the enterprise.
With all of the hoopla around Redmond's latest OS, it's worth taking the time to look at Windows 8 from a more objective, business-level perspective. Even if you're in the middle of a Windows 7 deployment already (as many companies are), Windows 8 may still have a place. Or not.
The new Windows 8 UI "desktop" has been one of the main sources of love or derision for this new OS, depending on how much you personally like it.
First, it isn't a new desktop. Calling it that was horrible messaging on Microsoft's part, and a mistake the company is going to regret for years. Yes, it's more touch-friendly than mouse-friendly, but it's actually also more keyboard-friendly than mouse-friendly. Think of it not as a desktop, but as a dashboard, not unlike the Windows Sidebar of Windows Vista or the Dashboard in Mac OS X. It's meant to help you locate apps, and to run simple, dumbed-down "applets" that let users accomplish quick tasks -- taking a note, checking the weather, quickly referring to a Web site -- before dropping back to the actual desktop to perform some work. Think of it as a second monitor you can summon, where you can get quick tasks done before turning your attention back to your real job.
If Windows 8 hadn't introduced this new Start screen, there would likely have been little excitement about it. That's a shame, because it does have some powerful, made-for-business features under all those colorful tiles. Windows To Go, for example, is an absolute must-have feature. The ability to deploy a BitLocker-encrypted corporate desktop image entirely to a USB key, which users can carry around and actually boot from, is nothing short of miraculous. Yes, Linux folks have been doing it for years, but your users aren't using Linux desktops -- they're using Windows. Which they can now take with them and use even on public hardware (like an Internet kiosk, provided they can reboot it) safely and securely. Awesome.
DirectAccess, the much-maligned and difficult-to-set-up remote-access technology, has finally become a practical choice with Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012. It's easier to deploy, and you can centrally manage the connection elements that live on your users' machines. DirectAccess-enabled clients can be managed via Group Policy even when not directly connected to your network, offering wonderful new management and maintenance possibilities. But you'll need Windows 8 on the client end to really take advantage.
There are other business-level features. The point is, you'll have to dig through the "touch-enabled, tablet-ready, blah blah blah" hype a bit to get to those features.
And maybe this is the time to let the whole "we run a single version of Windows" thing go.
Windows 8 is very much a "dot release" of Windows 7, in many ways, which was itself a "dot release" of Windows Vista. They're remarkably similar OSes underneath their cosmetics. They're deployed in much the same way, the Control Panel is remarkably unchanged between them, and they support roughly the same applications. They even have similar hardware requirements, believe it or not.
So why not run them side-by-side? Mobile users, especially, get a lot of love in Windows 8, so perhaps that's your new laptop OS. You might not feel that your desktop users need as many of the new features of Windows 8, so stick with Windows 7 there -- especially if you've already pushed it out. You can run these side-by-side, and doing so will give your IT team a big edge in helping users feel they're getting fresh technology.
Don Jones is a 12-year industry veteran, author of more than 45 technology books and an in-demand speaker at industry events worldwide. His broad technological background, combined with his years of managerial-level business experience, make him a sought-after consultant by companies that want to better align their technology resources to their business direction. Jones is a contributor to TechNet Magazine and Redmond, and writes a blog at ConcentratedTech.com.