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Gartner: Plan Now To Address Microsoft's Faster Windows Releases

IT pros can't rely on past upgrade strategies when considering Windows 8.1, according to research and consulting firm Gartner Inc.

The changes Microsoft ushered in with Windows 8 may keep IT pros running to keep up. Microsoft has talked about releasing its flagship operating system at yearly intervals, instead of once every three years. For many IT shops, this increased release cycle can be problematic. In addition, some organizations are faced with Windows XP losing security support after April, but they may still have problems moving off it.

At this point, organizations need a plan, according to Michael Silver, vice president and distinguished analyst for Gartner's mobile and client computing group. His talk, "Dealing With Microsoft's Rapid Windows Client Release Strategy," given today, is currently available on demand here.

In essence, IT pros can either deal with Microsoft's faster release cycles, or, if they can't handle the pace, then they should stay on Windows 7, according to Silver. He also suggested that using Google Chrome OS or Mac OS machines could be good alternatives, depending on how many Windows apps that an organization has, as well as how many of those Windows apps are considered critical to a business.

The Windows XP Problem
The sluggish pace seen today, with organizations still trying to move off Windows XP just two months before its end of life, doesn't bode well for trying to keep pace with Microsoft's new faster release cadence. If organizations can't move from Windows XP to Windows 7 over a period of 12 years' time then how can they move to a new Windows OS version every year, Silver asked. He noted that OS migrations have been particularly problematic for regulated industries. Many organizations may have problems just finding out what apps they have, and then they have to test them and remediate them for use with a new OS. One of biggest obstacles for organizations moving off Windows XP is Internet Explorer 6, Silver said. Some organizations have Web apps tied to IE 6 technology.

Still, Silver did expect to see a rapid decline in Windows XP use in the near future, although January figures showed it generally holding at 29 percent.

"After support ends on April 8, which is less than two months from now, we would expect 25 percent of organization PCs are still on Windows XP by that date, although by end of year we think it will be down to it the mid-single digits -- so five percent or 10 percent."

Silver briefly outlined the history of Windows -- from DOS to NT, and into the present RT era -- and explained why Microsoft adopted a faster release cycle, which is more familiar and acceptable to consumers than to IT organizations. Essentially, Windows has a shrinking OS market share. While it once ran on 90 percent of PCs, Gartner predicts that Windows will have just a 25 percent OS market share by 2016. In contrast, Android and iOS have taken the lion's share of that market, especially with the proliferation of mobile devices. So Microsoft reacted with the WinRT development model with Windows 8 to address that mobile OS competition. Silver speculated that a rumored "Windows 9" OS, which perhaps may appear sometime in 2015, could be designed to further consolidate a single Windows OS platform that will run across PC, tablet and phone devices.

The Three Strategies
Silver offered three strategies for organizations to deal with Microsoft's faster Windows release cycles. First, organizations can "hold up" and stay on Windows 7. If so, then they have six years to stay on Windows 7 until January 2020, although Silver advised spending two of those years to get off Windows 7. Second, organizations can try to "keep up" and go with Windows 8.1, while enduring the yearly upgrade cycles. Those trying to keep up with Microsoft still have to figure out what to do about Internet Explorer, Silver said. Microsoft tends to release a new browser with each OS release. Testing and remediation issues could become big problems for organizations choosing this course.

Third, organizations can just "give up" on chasing Windows updates. Such organizations could turn to running clients remotely via something like Microsoft's Remote Desktop Services using Citrix XenApp or they move to using a virtual desktop infrastructure type of approach. If this approach is taken, organizations would be required to rethink how they do security and how they provision and store data, Silver said.

Silver also considered the possibility that organizations might stick with running Windows XP after the April 8, 2014 end-of-support date. He said that after that date, Windows XP becomes a "moderate-to-high security risk." Organizations can try doing things like taking away administrative rights from users. They can add whitelisting software. Apps can be moved run on server OSes, rather than on Windows XP. However, all of those approaches are really just "a Band-Aid for moving to something newer," he said. Vendors likely won't be selling new apps for Windows XP or the hardware for it, so that's another consideration in favor of getting off Windows XP, he said.

Getting Microsoft's "custom support" for Windows XP is an option for organizations with the means to pay for it. The first year of custom support is $200 per device for the first year, Silver said, and you have to pay for a minimum of 750 devices regardless of the amount of devices you have. However, the cost of custom support doubles, or more, after that first year, he added.

Silver included a couple of warnings for organizations toward the end of his talk. Microsoft may start delivering more Software Asset Management (SAM) engagements, which are "friendly" software audits, Silver said. They're also focusing more on subscriptions with Office 365.

"By 2016, we believe that organizations with bring-your-own [device] programs may be forced to subscribe to Office instead of buying perpetual licenses," he said.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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