Windows 8: The Legacy Apps Question

The lead up to Windows 8 has seen many commentators stress the importance of legacy application support. But mobility, BYOD, and developer trends have caused a shift in enterprise needs. This shift raises a question: is compatibility with old apps a true workplace necessity, or has the idea become an overstated marketing tactic that IT managers should take with a grain of salt?

Windows 7 is dominant in the workplace, and more than a few companies still rely on Windows XP. The ubiquity of these OSes means that, for some businesses, the importance of a few Windows-exclusive apps can make continued use of Microsoft’s OS a must. The issue of custom apps built for Windows environments only solidifies this point.

But according to a Wednesday talk by Gartner analyst Michael Silver during the research firm’s Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, legacy support is becoming increasingly less important. The progression, he said, hasn’t yet made traditional apps obsolete or easily replaceable, but with the rise of browser-based and otherwise OS-agnostic apps, enterprise desktops are not as beholden to Microsoft as they once were.

And even among those who will continue to use Windows, he remarked, Windows 8 might not offer compelling reasons to upgrade. Silver said that as far back as 1996, 95% of the apps used by typical organizations required Windows. This figure had dropped to 50% in the last year, and that today, fewer than half of the most common enterprise apps require a specific OS, he said.

Part of the downward trend stems from mobile devices, but Silver said many enterprises used the Windows 7 migration as an opportunity to reduce their app portfolios. Not all businesses have completed, or even begun, this migration–but he said that typical organizations cut a quarter of their apps. Silver tied this to the cloud. The PC is “no longer the center of the universe,” he noted. A few years ago, everything synchronized with desktops and laptops, but now–in what Gartner calls the “personal cloud era”–fewer processes reside on the desktop itself, with more and more of them involving communication between the device and a cloud-based service. “The definition of what your desktop is is really changing,” he said.

This change has made it easier for businesses to explore new approaches. “A lot of people like Windows, but the rising star is Apple,” he noted. He said that client calls used to involve “keeping Apple out of the organization.” However, thanks largely to iPhones and iPads attracting more users to Apple’s ecosystem, the question has shifted to, “How do I allow Apple into my organization and make sure it’s secure and manageable?”

Although organizations are trying to get more open, Silver said Linux interest is “way down.” Google’s Chrome OS, meanwhile, has been basically a non-starter in Gartner’s experience, prompting only a couple of client inquiries per year.

The desktop choice for most businesses, in other words, still boils down to Macs versus PCs.

Macs present “a lot of perceived benefits,” but “most of them are hard to quantify,” said Silver. Apple machines don’t offer enough savings to build a business case. Instead the appeal for IT departments is in pleasing users. Macs can help attract and retain the best people, Silver said. He said that Gartner has noticed a trend, which started on the West Coast and spread east, in which new college graduates make employment decisions based on whether Macs are allowed in the office. Although it might be difficult to believe in the current job market, he said that desirable applicants have actually declined job offers in Windows-only environments. “With Apple, there are a lot of perceptions [around improved productivity and security],” he said, adding, “I’m not sure all of those are actually reality, but certainly to an end user, perception is reality.”

Silver noted that, like Windows machines, Macs also have become less beholden to OS-specific applications, allowing enterprises to open up their environments. He also noted that replacing a valuable employee can cost up to three times that employee’s salary, so even if Apple’s computers don’t present direct savings, reduced recruitment and retention efforts “could be a significant cost that you can put into a business case.”

Among legacy applications, Silver said, IT departments must consider Microsoft Office first and foremost. He noted that a lot of alternatives exist–from OpenOffice to iWorks to Google Docs–but that only Word fits the needs of both the least and most demanding workers, offering not only basic word processing but also more advanced features, such as macros. Certain alternatives, such as IBM Docs and Google Docs, provide attractive features, such as collaboration tools, but none offers Word’s top-to-bottom feature set.

What’s more, he said, alternatives need to be compatible with Microsoft Office because Office’s footprint is so large. A division whose employees communicate exclusively with one another could have the flexibility to choose freely, but if any external interactions are required, Office is hard to replace. He noted that this dynamic is changing due to tablets. “What I want to do on my iPad to an Office doc is different than what I want to do with a mouse and keyboard. [On the tablet] I want to mark it up, review it–not write my life story.” He said Microsoft’s ability to create mobile versions of its Office suite is a “wild card” but that the company would have to avoid cannibalizing its desktop sales.

So, for the moment, legacy app support remains an unavoidable consideration, but the tides are slowly turning. So what does this mean for Windows 8?

Silver reiterated Gartner’s skepticism that enterprises, despite the ongoing need for at least a few traditional apps, will deploy Windows 8 in large numbers. He cited not only that many businesses are still recouping Windows 7 investments but also that businesses typically do not roll out a new OS until it is a few years old. By that point, Windows 9 rumors will likely have surfaced. Likening Windows 8’s situation to the one that faced Windows ME,

Silver said that up to 90% of businesses will likely skip a broad Windows 8 upgrade, and that they will confine the new OS to “specific uses.” Silver suggested that Microsoft knows this, and that Windows 8 is more about selling tablets and increasing the company’s reach in the mobile arena. Indeed, touch-based UIs could actually deter enterprises, as companies would need to invest in not only the new OS but also new equipment to support it.

Selling tablets, though, will require consumer adoption, and Silver expressed uncertainty that average buyers will take to the somewhat confusing variety of Windows 8 options, which include an ARM-based version. “It will be an interesting Christmas season,” he said.

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Windows 8: A Bridge Too Far For Enterprises?

The wait is over. Windows 8 arrives for real this week and we’ll soon see whether the product Steve Ballmer admits is a bigger deal to Microsoft than the epically successful Windows 95 will live up to the company’s hype and expectations. Although this isn’t a “bet the company” moment–Microsoft is no longer a one-trick pony and is much less dependent on PC sales than it was in the mid-90s, as Windows now constitutes a smaller share of its revenue than applications (i.e. Office) or server software–it will chart the company’s course for years to come.

Will Microsoft finally become a legitimate rival to Apple and the Google ecosystem in mobile devices or will it be forced further into the background, in the mold of IBM and Oracle, as an IT infrastructure supplier? Will Windows 8 be the catalyst that injects life into a moribund PC market that’s clearly suffering from a severe case of iPad hangover, with Apple providing another dose of pain by unveiling the low-priced Mini earler in the week, or end up another Vista; the OS everyone can do without? We’ll get our first hints shortly as the holiday shopping season kicks into gear. After reviewing Windows 8 for our InformationWeek Windows 8 Survival Guide, one thing seems certain: It wasn’t designed with enterprises in mind.

As even the most casual technology watcher knows by now, the biggest changes in Windows 8 also happen to be the most visible: a new touchscreen and tablet-friendly UI still known as Metro (despite Microsoft’s desire to banish the term to the Internet’s memory hole). Although our Windows 8 poll found more people like the interface than not, as I write in the report, “A big turn off for most users is that Windows 8 sticks you with Metro as the default home screen whether you like it or not; there’s no option to automatically drop back to the Windows desktop you know and its familiar Start Menu and Task Bar, although these (save the Start Menu) are still easily accessible under the covers. Fully 62% of our respondents say that inability to disable the new interface will slow or preclude their deployment.”

Opinion of Windows 8 Metro Interface

But it’s not just the tile-based interface that will wreak havoc with IT departments fielding questions from befuddled users, it’s the fact that Windows 8 really wants to be touched. Although the new Windows works fine on old, non-touch, hardware, indeed that’s how I tested the product, at best it’s a suboptimal situation and at worst can be downright exasperating. While Windows 7 did support touch, it was largely ignored both by users and vendors; but with Windows 8, Microsoft went all in. As I note in the report, the touch experience starts from the moment you want to log on, “The Metro start screen uses a swipe gesture to expose the new Charms bar (a normally hidden icon bar allowing quick access to search, sharing, system settings and application switching) to such a degree that without a touch screen device the user experience is somewhat frustrating, forcing you to hover the mouse in ‘magic’ screen regions.” It’s primarily for this reason that I advise IT decision makers, but the same holds for consumers, to limit Windows 8 to new hardware. Don’t bother upgrading existing systems; the few modest benefits, better memory management, easier Wi-Fi configuration, a faster browser, aren’t worth the UI hassles.

Windows 8’s schizophrenia isn’t just limited to the UI though. In trying to counter the iPad juggernaut, Microsoft has developed a non-x86 version, Windows RT, designed for lower-cost tablets and “laplets” (laptop-tablet hybrids). RT is a strange stepchild to the mainstream product as: (a) it won’t run existing applications (since it doesn’t use Intel hardware), (b) only uses the Metro UI (there’s no traditional desktop to fall back on since you’ll need new, Metro apps anyway), (c) is only available bundled with a device, not as a standalone product (again, what’s the point since you’ll need new hardware anyway) and (d) includes a version of Office (so at least you’ll have something to run). While RT may be a hit with consumers (although by not undercutting iPad on price, why bother with the imitation when you can have the real thing?), it’s a complete nonstarter for enterprises. Sure, you can read and edit Office docs, but in this age of webmail and other cloud applications like SaaS collaboration software, and countless Office-compatible apps, with the possible exception of Excel, who really cares anymore? RT won’t run any of your custom Windows software, costs as much as the iPad or other high-end Android alternatives like the Asus Transformer Infinity and Galaxy Note, is a first generation product (unlike iPad and Android hardware that’s had over two years of refinement) and still requires a keyboard to effectively use the headline app, Office. Business users looking for the all-in-one, PC-tablet experience might as well spring an extra $500 for a new touch-sensitive notebook like Lenovo’s sexy Yoga 13.

Windows 8 appears to be one of those Veg-O-Matic-type products with Microsoft trying to do too much at once: please both mobile device and PC users, those migrating from the PC world and those looking for a new tablet experience, buyers looking for a low-cost PC companion and those running high-end ultrabooks. And like most hybrid compromises, it ends up doing an adequate, but far from stellar, job at any given task. Instead of being Microsoft’s answer to the iPad, Windows 8 may end up marking the moment when people stopped caring about PC operating systems.

Apple Earnings Disappoint on the Eve of Windows 8 Release

Is this the coincidence of the century or a sign of things to come? Thursday evening, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) announced that it was no longer the indestructible stalwart that created the MacBook, iPod and iPhone. While the company is still enormously successful (and has a ton of cash on hand), Apple showed signs of weakness as it struggled to live up to expectations.

Apple’s biggest mistake may have been its decision to update the iPad (not once, but twice) this year with only minor tweaks and improvements. While many praised the newly-added Retina Display, opening weekend sales were underwhelming and overall sales were disappointing . The company recently bragged that it sold more than 100 million iPads worldwide, but that did not prevent the firm from falling short of investor expectations.

Investors might have expected too much. Even Apple is willing to admit that the future is not as bright as some had believed. According to Tej Singh, the Managing Director of Technology Research at Global Equities Research, Apple lowered guidance by a significant margin. “FY1Q’2013 [is] at $52 billion and EPS at $11.75, which is significantly lower [than] consensus at $55.15 billion and $15.59, respectively,” Singh wrote in a note.

This is disappointing (if not surprising) news for a company that just unveiled a long list of new products, including the long-awaited iPad Mini .

Not surprisingly, Apple took a hit in after-hours trading Thursday evening. At the same time, thousands of consumers were lined up to get their hands on Windows 8, an operating system that promises to deliver the next revolution in personal and professional computing. At midnight, these eager consumers finally got what they wanted .

It might be nothing more than a coincidence, but one cannot help but notice the irony of this situation. Not that long ago, Apple was thought to be the future of the tech industry. It was a company that could do no wrong — a firm that would rise above the competition and deliver an unprecedented level of value to its investors. For many months, Apple did just that. Now that Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) threatened to stop Apple from conquering the industry, the Mac maker is taking a hit.

Realistically, the Windows 8 launch could not possibly be responsible for Apple’s declines. The company has been headed south for quite some time. After a record-breaking 2011, Apple could not excel any longer. The same thing has happened to Nintendo (OTC: NTDOY ), Sony (NYSE: SNE ) and numerous other tech companies. It was inevitable that the iPhone maker would suffer the same fate.

That said, Windows 8 has been in the works for a long time. Consumers have known of its impending release for several months. So it is not crazy to think that Microsoft may have persuaded consumers to hold off on buying a Mac until after Windows 8 was released. Once they see and touch the new OS themselves, they might be persuaded to buy a Windows 8 machine instead.

It could be a few days (or weeks) before Microsoft announces any sales figures for the newest version of Windows. Until then, Apple is likely to continue disappointing investors as it attempts to build the next big thing.

Microsoft Misses Q1 Estimates Ahead Of Windows 8

Software leader Microsoft (MSFT) late Thursday joined the parade of companies posting weak results tied to the declining PC market.

Microsoft reported earnings of 53 cents a share, down 22% from the year-ago quarter and 3 cents below Wall Street forecasts, for its fiscal Q1 ended Sept. 30. Sales fell 8% to $16.01 billion, vs. analysts’ target of $16.42 billion. It was the Redmond, Wash.-based company’s first down quarter for profit and sales in the past three years.

Microsoft shares were down more than 1% in after-hours trading following the earnings news release. Shares fell a fraction in the regular session, closing at 29.50.

Microsoft hopes its Surface tablet boosts its December quarter. Getty ImagesMicrosoft hopes its Surface tablet boosts its December quarter. Getty Images View Enlarged Image

Analysts predict Microsoft will return to sales and earnings growth in the December quarter, thanks to fall product launches led by its Windows 8 operating system. Microsoft will launch Windows 8 on Oct. 26, along with a line of Surface tablets. Also on tap this fall are new Office productivity software, Windows Phone 8 software and a sequel to the hit “Halo” video game for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console.

“This is a difficult quarter, right in front of Windows 8,” BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis said. “But there’s plenty of positives to take from” the Q1 report. He says the company’s server business is doing well and sees the company moving to adapt to the shift to mobile.

“If they were not positioning themselves for the future, I’d be much more worried,” Gillis said. “Clearly (the PC industry) is in decline. But it’s not dead. This is why this is a value story at this juncture. (Microsoft is) still highly profitable and paying a decent dividend.”

Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect Microsoft to earn 87 cents a share, up 12%, on sales of $22.98 billion, up 10%, in the current quarter. Microsoft did not give fiscal Q2 sales and earnings guidance Thursday.

For the second quarter in a row, Microsoft deferred revenue from presales of its Windows 8 and Office 2013 software. The deferrals added up to $1.36 billion in sales and 13 cents of earnings per share. It will account for those deferrals in the December quarter.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer tried to direct attention forward. “The launch of Windows 8 is the beginning of a new era at Microsoft,” Ballmer said in a statement. “Investments we’ve made over a number of years are now coming together to create a future of exceptional devices and services, with tremendous opportunity for our customers, developers, and partners.”

In a conference call with analysts, Microsoft Chief Financial Officer Peter Klein said sales were hurt by “a challenging PC market, normal purchasing slowdowns in advance of upcoming product launches and tough economic conditions, particularly in Europe.”

PC makers slowed purchases of Windows licenses in preparation for Windows 8, Klein said.

Microsoft saw “healthy renewals” of enterprise software licensing in Q1, he said.

Klein said the company’s product launch schedule is its largest ever. “In a 12-month period, we will have refreshed nearly all of our major products,” he said.

In Q1, Microsoft’s server and tools division saw double-digit revenue growth in SQL Server, a database system, and System Center, a systems management product. The division’s sales rose 8% from a year ago to $4.55 billion. Also, Microsoft launched its Windows Server 2012 software in September.

Microsoft’s business division, which includes Office, saw a 2% decline in revenue to $5.5 billion.

But the flagship Windows unit, the operating system that runs most PCs, suffered a 33% drop in sales to $3.24 billion. Even adding in presales of Windows 8, division sales would have fallen 9% in Q1.

Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division, which includes the Xbox video game business, saw sales slip 1% to $1.95 billion.

And the online services unit, which includes Bing search and MSN, hiked revenue 9% to $697 million. But the unit still lost $364 million, adding to cumulative losses of $16 billion the past six years.

Intel sees weak 4Q, little Windows 8 bounce

Intel Corp., the world’s largest chipmaker, expects cold winds to blow this fall, as consumers shift their spending toward tablets and a weak global economy curbs corporate spending on computers.

When it reported third-quarter results Tuesday, Intel said the usual bounce in sales due to the holiday season is likely to be cut in half this year —even though Microsoft is launching a new operating system that it says will get consumers excited about PCs again.

In the quarter that just ended, Intel’s revenue from PC chips fell 8 percent from a year ago, in line with reports from research firms IDC and Gartner that said worldwide PC sales fell more than 8 percent.

The shift away from PCs and toward tablets is a threat to Intel because most tablets don’t use Intel processors. Instead, they use cheaper chips similar to the ones found in smartphones.

Intel wants to get its chips into tablets. The launch of Windows 8, Microsoft’s new operating system, on Oct. 26 gives it a chance to do that, since the software is designed both for PCs and tablets.

But Intel’s expectations for the Windows 8 launch are muted.

Normally, PC makers ramp up production for the holiday season, but Intel CEO Paul Otellini said he expects that increase to be halved this year, in part because manufacturers are cautious about how consumers will take to Windows 8.

The new software is a radical departure from previous Windows versions in terms of how people are expected to use it to control their PCs.

“I’m very excited about this new operating system,” Otellini said, but “we haven’t had a chance to really judge how consumers will embrace this in the PC space or not.”

Patrick Moorhead with research firm Moor Insight said PC makers have been cautious about building up big stocks of new Windows 8 PCs. That means they put in fewer orders with Intel, though it did see a bit of a spike in September as PC makers built initial stock for this month’s launch.

Intel’s stock fell 77 cents, or 3.5 percent, to $21.58 in extended trading, after the release of the results. In regular trading, the shares rose 2.9 percent. The stock hit a 52-week low of $21.40 on Friday.

While the outlook for the fourth quarter was glum, Intel beat expectations for the third quarter, after it had lowered those expectations twice.

The Santa Clara, Calif., company said its third-quarter net income was $2.97 billion, or 58 cents per share, down from $3.47 billion, or 65 cents per share, a year ago.

Excluding the amortization of some acquisition-related assets and related tax effects, Intel earned 60 cents per share, handily beating the average estimate of analysts polled by FactSet, at 50 cents per share.

Revenue fell 5.5 percent to $13.5 billion. Analysts were expecting $13.22 billion, in line with the midpoint of Intel’s own forecast.

Intel said it expects about $13.6 billion in fourth-quarter revenue, below the analyst forecast of $13.7 billion. More significantly, it said it expects a gross margin of 57 percent, well below the average for the last three years of 64 percent. The gross margin is Intel’s revenue minus the cost of making and selling the chips, so the lower forecast points indirectly to lower profit in the fourth quarter. The reduction is due to lower utilization of its factories, and a shift toward to a new processor technology, which will idle some factories for retooling.

5 big reasons businesses should consider Windows 8

If you think you read my title wrong, take a second look. You’d think from all the overblown attention that the Modern interface is garnering, that I was going to focus another drab op-ed around that sole feature. Yes, the Modern UI is a radical change and will turn a lot of people off. But let’s not forget that with every new Windows release comes features that actually don’t get the time of day. I think a few of these deserve a sliver of attention.

We’ve been down this road before. Let’s not forget that the introduction of the Office ribbon menu system was considered shocking back in 2006, and years later a majority of users have accepted and embraced the changes. Apple received similar kickback on its radical iPhone design back in 2007. I truly believe the heat on Windows 8’s Modern UI will come and go like the rest of modern tech’s evolutionary moments.

As the fog surrounding the UI debate starts to dissipate, it’s interesting to see the preliminary support Windows 8 is getting for the enterprise and business in general. In the newest issue of Redmond Magazine, Don Jones pens a timely piece highlighting some of the better aspects of Windows 8. Correcting the misnomer that most pundits pass along, Jones explains how the Modern UI is nothing more than a “dashboard” like the Dashboard feature in OS X. There is still one true desktop in Windows 8, easily accessible in multiple manners at any given time.

I happen to like Windows 8 a lot — and I don’t adore the Modern UI. But then again, it didn’t take a complete reawakening for me to understand how to best utilize the user interface. I think positive feelings about Windows 8, while taking into consideration qualms about Modern UI, can be mutually exclusive (unlike some other tech pundits would make you believe.) If you think Windows 7 is fast, 8 is that much faster. In many areas, it happens to be cleaner and offers a value proposition that end users may actually realize. Windows Refresh, anyone?

I was also intrigued to hear about Microsft’s own internal transition to Windows 8 at a small tech briefing in Chicago a few months back. If any company has something to prove about enterprise embracing Windows 8, it has to be big M by far. Since mid-July 2012, Microsoft claims to have had 30,000 computers and roughly 30,000 employees moved over to Windows 8 (along with IE10.)

Impressive to say the least. I asked a Microsoft rep present at the aforementioned Chicago tech event how employees were dealing with the transition, and the answer was pretty honest. Smooth for most; rocky for others. Enterprise transitions are never easy, so it’s good to see Microsoft eating its own dogfood very early on.

While the early adopters are clearly making strides towards Windows 8, these are some of my arguments for considering passing on Windows 7 in favor of 8.

1. Windows rollouts take 12-18 months; why fall further behind on your upgrade cycle? Most estimates on a business migration from one Windows version to another are pitted at a 12 to 18 month timespan. Think about this purely from a ROI perspective for a second: if you haven’t even begun a migration to Windows 7, where will you be time-wise when you finally finish? Keep in mind that Windows 7 came out in mid-2009 which means if you are pondering whether to begin a move to Win 7 just now, you won’t be finished until about late 2013 if not well into 2014. Windows 7 will already be an OS that has been on the market for 4-5 years at that point, meaning you will be eyeing your next Windows move in the not-so-distant future.

It’s also acute to be mindful of Microsoft’s support lifecycles for Windows versions when planning migrations. Windows 7 loses mainstream support by January of 2015, and gets completely cut off by extended support in January of 2020. At best, you’re talking about an OS that will see only about 5-6 years of usage max before it’s time to get back to the rollout drawing board.

In contrast, if your company made the move to Windows 8, you would enjoy a much healthier lifespan. Mainstream support for 8 ends in January 2018 and extended support runs all the way until January 2023. If I were planning a Windows migration for my FireLogic customers, I would be taking a second (or third) look at skipping 7 entirely.

2. Windows 8 is faster than 7 in every respect. Here’s another thing you may have missed in the all FUD surrounding Windows 8: it’s a helluva lot faster than Windows 7. And Windows 7 is what I consider the best OS yet from Microsoft! How can it perform better in light of what most people see as bloat from Modern UI?

It’s got a few things going for it. First off, Microsoft stripped out a lot of what bloated Windows editions in the past. Things like DVD playback and other extraneous features that can easily be added on via third-party apps were dropped in an effort to slim down the OS. It’s not surprising, then, that Windows 8 uses less memory pound-for-pound compared to Win 7. Couple Windows 8 with a decent SSD and you can turn that Vista-era snail of a PC into something almost reborn.

The reduced memory consumption and overall smaller footprint of Windows 8 means that aging corporate desktops can still keep ticking. If you were initially planning on replacing more of your PC fleet than you hoped, Windows 8 may save your company some decent cash. Testers claim that Windows 8 can run with as little as 128MB of RAM. While it’s more proof-of-concept than anything, the takeaway from this should be that you may not have to toss that old hardware just yet.

In my testing, Windows 8 starts and shuts down so fast that I don’t even bother putting it to sleep anymore. Cold boots are nearly as quick as sleep mode. Don’t blink, because you may not even notice the new boot screen!

3. Microsoft’s focus on security in Win 8 is readily apparent. If the performance aspects of Windows 8 aren’t enough to sway you from 7, then perhaps all of the investment in security features will tickle you nicely. While there are too many to name in here, a few of the most important ones must be mentioned. Secure Boot is a core feature of Windows 8 security that in essence locks down the OS initialization process to the point where rootkits and other popular malware will no longer have a place to hide. Microsoft couples validated secure firmware to help authenticate the boot process and get rid of the “back door” that has existed for so long.

Windows To Go is a new feature that replicates what we have come to know in the Linux world as Live CDs. How does this fit into a business’ usage of Windows 8? This enables an IT department to hand out Windows To Go powered flash drives (not all flash drives are compatible though) to contractors and other short-term workers who need access to a standardized instance of Windows 8. In the past, IT had to provide the hardware and software for end users. Not so much anymore.

AppLocker is a feature returning from Windows 7, but improved over its first iteration. This simple blacklist/whitelist technology allows admins to create strict application policies for end users, which extends to Modern UI apps as well in Win 8. For businesses looking to truly lock down a common desktop environment, AppLocker has to be one of the greatest gifts from Microsoft.

4. Sick of managing printer drivers? Windows 8 does away with the old mess. This aspect of Windows 8 hasn’t nearly gotten the press it rightfully deserves. But for anyone who has tried to manage a modern print server, it’s fairly well known that making end-users’ lives easier entails a lengthy process of finding proper drivers, testing them, and deploying them centrally – hoping nothing screws up in the process.

Microsoft realized the mess that we know as printer driver hell and built an entirely new backend for getting Windows 8 and printers to talk.  The technical details are explained in an excellent but lengthy blog post. Toss out everything you know about print drivers to date. Starting in Win 8, printer compatibility is primarily achieved through the use of truly “instant” connections made via a modern “printer class driver framework”. This radical shift was sped up due to the arrival of Windows RT, but was properly extended to the entire Windows 8 range.

Printing in Windows, until now, has been literally a 1:1 process behind the scenes, where a specific print driver was matched to a given printer. This had to be specific per edition of Windows, and even further down to the variations between x86 and x64 flavors. This new framework allows a common printing driver to support a near endless array of printers old and new. Microsoft knows that not all printers will work with this new model and built in full compatibility with all previous Windows 7 printer drivers. But going forward, Microsoft aims for what the introduction of USB was supposed to harbor: true plug and play.

5. Multi-monitor support is finally done right. Corporate workers tend to use multiple monitors now to get their work done. It’s a simple fact of life. At my previous school district IT job, the mere mention of getting a spare monitor for dual-screen usage caused some very public jealousy. Windows (even Win 7) wasn’t perfect with how it handled multiple screens. Initial detection was always spotty; the taskbar never quite figured out how to span across all screens; and moving applications between screens was sometimes a chore when perfect placement was necessary.

Luckily, Microsoft has done a great deal to address the issues with multiple screen usage in Windows 8. Using multiple monitors shouldn’t be a chore, and has been simplified in many regards. For example, you can now easily tell Windows 8 to span the common taskbar across all your screens. Customization of the various desktops is vast, with the ability to span large wallpapers or have separate wallpapers for every monitor. You can even move Modern UI apps over to different screens to your liking.

Other nagging issues like losing track of which taskbar items belonged to which instance of an app have been addressed. You can duplicate open items in the primary taskbar, and also have the screen that hosts a unique window to show its respective taskbar item on that same monitor. Bringing up the Start menu can be done on any screen, and likewise can be done with the common Charms bar. Microsoft spared no expense to get multi monitor support down to a T in Windows 8.

Final Thoughts

If you judge Windows 8 on the introduction of the Modern UI start screen alone, it may tank at first glance. But I challenge those involved with enterprise (or even small to midsize business, for that matter) IT to give Windows 8 a second look. It’s polished, speedy and built with security in mind. I’ve got nothing against Windows 7, but after giving Windows 8 a spin myself, my apprehension with Microsoft’s latest desktop release is dwindling quickly.

You can grab the 90 day Windows 8 Enterprise trial over on MSDN and see what you think. Here’s hoping you actually find some usefulness in the new Windows — as I surprisingly did.

Half tablet, half laptop: Sony unveils its Windows 8 hybrid Ultrabook

Sony is launching a Windows 8 “hybrid” computer today that is both a laptop and a touchscreen tablet.

The Sony Vaio Duo 11 computer is one of many that will debut on Oct. 26 as Microsoft introduces its latest operating system. This machine will have a split personality, first as an Ultrabook (Intel’s brand name for super-thin, powerful laptops) with a full keyboard. You can also convert into an 11.6-inch tablet computer.

The Duo 11 is available in black and sells for $1,099.

The idea is to give you the flexibility of using a PC or a tablet at any time you choose. The Duo 11 Ultrabook can recognize 10-finger touches simultaneously, and it runs apps such as finger painting or full Microsoft Office programs. You can crop photos and graphics with Sony’s Active Clip app, which allows you to draw roughly around an object and then clips it out for pasting into another background.

You can also use the Note Anytime application for jotting down handwritten notes on the touchscreen.

The Duo 11 weighs 2.84 pounds and comes with a pressure-sensitive digitizer pen that lets you write on the touchscreen. You can use swappable pen tips for a firmer or softer writing style, making it good for sketching. It has a full high-definition touchscreen LCD display, a backlit keyboard, and an Intel Core processor (Core i3 to Core i7). It has a battery sheet that snaps on and extends the life.

The machine can share content with other devices via its near-field communications (NFC) wireless technology. The touchscreen has a spring-loaded sliding mechanism that makes it easy to remove and use as a tablet. It has five hours of battery life, but the sheet battery extends that to 10 hours.

Sony is also offering updates to its laptop families, including the T series, E series, L series, and S series.