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Windows 8, with its new, dramatic interface, represents a huge gamble for Microsoft. It's a huge gamble not only because the company risks slowing update cycles and attrition of its desktop installation base but also because the Windows desktop underpins the Microsoft ecosystem. That ecosystem could easily unravel if Microsoft fails to maintain a strong foundation.
As a technologist, I have been watching Windows 8 for some time. I have been using it, in some capacity, since the earliest public betas. I've long struggled to come to terms with how Microsoft envisions Windows 8 fitting into their existing customer base, but I have been more or less hopeful that the final release would fix many of my concerns.
When Windows 8 did finally release I was, sadly, left still wondering why it was so different from past Windows interfaces, what the ultimate intention was and how users were going to react to it.
Windows 8 Users Revolt
It didn't take long before I got a very thorough introduction to user reaction. As a technology consultancy, my company tends to move quickly on new technologies and trends. When new products release, we generally apply updates almost instantaneously so that we are ready for problems and ahead of our customers. We started prepping to roll out Windows 8 on the day that it was released to manufacturing. Although the IT department had been playing with the new operating system since the early beta, that day was when management got their first chance to try it out.
Management came back to IT to ask critical questions concerning efficiency, usability and training. They found Windows 8's interface to be confusing and highly inefficient, requiring a disruptive "jolt" of leaping to and from full screen menus that caused mental context shifting and loss of focus. Many tasks required "power-user" levels of knowledge.
It wasn't that Windows 8 was unusable, but it failed at delivering the value traditionally associated with Windows—the value that traditionally has caused us to move from version to version more or less without thinking.
In the past, Windows on the desktop has delivered a predictable user experience requiring little to no retraining. Windows 8, by contrast, requires extensive retraining, makes workers less efficient even after adapting to it and requires all users to be power users in order to be effective. While sticking with Windows is the obvious choice for IT departments with deep investments in Windows knowledge and skills (and tools), the value proposition for end users does not have the same continuity that it has in the past.
"Good Enough" Isn't Good Enough
Many reviews say that Windows 8 is "good enough" and that with extensive training end users can learn to "deal with" the interface issues. They say that the operating system becomes functional when users learn new skills like jumping back and forth between mouse and keyboard and memorizing shortcut keys.
But they never describe Windows 8 as good, never ideal. Few articles say why Windows 8 is better; they just say it is acceptable.
That's hardly a position that we want to be in as an IT department. We want to deliver solutions and value. We want to make our businesses more efficient, not less. We want to avoid disruption, not create it.
We visited Microsoft reps at a trade show where they were showing off Windows 8, but Microsoft's own staff were unable to clarify the value proposition of Windows 8. In their demonstration environment, they couldn't even get it to work "as intended."
A New Option: Linux Mint
Our company quickly made a decision: management wanted a demonstration of a Linux desktop immediately.
The first test was Linux Mint, which ended up being the final choice as well. The non-IT users were really impressed with how easy-to-use Linux Mint was for people with a Windows background. It required no training - users literally just sat down and started working; unlike on Windows 8 where users were confused and needed help with the simplest tasks like opening an application or shutting down the computer.
And there was essentially no pushback related to Linux Mint. People were universally excited about the opportunities that the new platform could provide, whereas people were actively concerned about how painful working with Windows 8 would be both up front and down the road.
That Windows 8 blundered so dramatically as to cause us to audition a competing product was not that surprising to me. These things happen. However, I was surprised that the reaction of the non-IT staff was so dramatically in favor of a Linux distro. Staff with no Linux exposure didn't just see Linux as a low-cost alternative or as the lesser of two evils but were downright excited to use it.
Windows 8 has caused Microsoft's worst fears to come true - users will no longer choose Windows because it is familiar and comfortable. Windows will no longer compete on a "devil we know" basis, but will need to compete on a usability basis. In our case, users said Linux Mint actually felt far more familiar and comfortable than Windows 8.
The Widespread Impact of Replacing Desktop Windows with Linux
I was even more surprised by the ripple effect that changing the operating system had on the computing infrastructure. Because Windows was being replaced, a series of questions arose around other technology choices. The first, probably somewhat obviously, was what to do about Windows-based applications that had no Linux versions.
We are lucky that our shop runs very standard applications, primarily modern, browser-based ones, so the bulk of applications worked on Linux transparently. The only major application to require an alternative was Microsoft Office. Fortunately, the fix was easy; LibreOffice had everything that we needed and is built into Linux Mint.
Moving from MS Office to LibreOffice can be simple or intimidating depending on outside dependencies, complexity of use scenarios, heavy use of macros, etc. We were lucky that for us the move was trivial, across the board.
Dropping Microsoft Office left us without an effective email client for our Exchange email system. So again, management asked, "What compelling value is there for us in Exchange?" Shoulder shrugs followed. Almost immediately, we began a migration effort from a hosted Exchange service to Rackspace Email. This resulted in one of the largest cost savings, overall, in this entire process.
Next to be questioned was SharePoint. Without desktop Active Directory integration, Microsoft Office integration and Exchange integration, was the overhead of running a heavy SharePoint installation of appreciable value to our organization? SharePoint put up the biggest fight, as it truly is a nearly irreplaceable system. In the end, however, without the slew of Microsoft integrated components SharePoint was deemed too costly and complex to warrant using on its own in our environment.
One by one, Microsoft products whose values were established through their tight integration with each other began to be eliminated in favor of lower-cost, more flexible alternatives. As they were removed, the value that they had cumulatively created diminished, making each one less and less valuable without the others.
Before the move to a Linux desktop, we had been preparing to install Lync as a replacement for both our instant messaging platform and our telephony platform. Needless to say, we cancelled that project and kept our current systems, which integrate really well with Linux and cost much less.
Even applications that we thought were untouchable, such as Windows-based accounting systems, ended up being less sacred than we had anticipated. New applications were found, and systems were migrated.
As we continued eliminating Microsoft-based applications, it became apparent that using Active Directory for centralized authentication was not cost effective. This piece will take quite some time to phase out completely as creating a new, centralized authentication mechanism will take quite a bit of planning and implementation time, but we have begun the process of moving to a completely different platform.
Of course, support infrastructure followed as well, as we no longer needed System Center and Windows-focused backup systems. And Windows-based file servers stopped making sense without Windows clients to support.
The Unraveling of the Windows Ecosystem
At the end of the day, what was so shocking was that the littlest thing, a concern over the efficiency and usability of Windows 8's new interface, triggered a series of discoveries that completely unraveled our Microsoft-centered ecosystem.
No single product was unloved or disliked. We were a team of dedicated Windows 7 desktop users on a wholly Microsoft infrastructure. We were happy with that decision and happy to be continuing to move more and more over to the Microsoft "way." But questioning the assumption that we wanted or needed to be using a Windows desktop ended up bringing down an infrastructural house of cards.
From an end user perspective, the move to Linux was effortless. We have done quite a bit of retraining and rethinking from the support side, of course. There is a lot to learn there, but that is IT's job - support the business and do what needs to be done to make them able to work most efficiently.
Does this bode of a dark future for Windows? Unlikely. But it does highlight that a significant misstep on the desktop platform could easily put Microsoft's market position on a downward spiral.
Microsoft depends on tight integration between their systems to create their value proposition. Losing the desktop component of that integration can quickly undermine the remaining pieces. To be sure, ours is a special case scenario: a small firm with extensive UNIX skills already existing in house, an ambitious and forward-thinking management team and the agility to make broad changes. But just because we lie on the extreme edge does not mean that our story is not an important one.
For some, Windows 8 might not only represent the tipping point in the Windows desktop value proposition but the tipping point in the Microsoft ecosystem itself.