IT and Business Insights for SMB Solution Providers

Windows 8.1-Hit, Miss, or None of the Above?

The latest version of Microsoft’s new operating system is supposed to address user complaints, but will SMBs warm to the platform or take their dollars elsewhere? By Erik Sherman

Windows 8 was supposed to put Microsoft back in the game. By offering capabilities for either desktop or tablet and combining a slick look and feel with vastly improved security and a way to fuse together all aspects of client computing-no matter what a person is doing-the company expected the product to be a hit.

But there are hits, and then there is the deep thumping sound that occurs when something heavy hits the ground. Sales have been a disappointment. Analysts are shaking their heads and asking if Microsoft can make a comeback, even with the changes in Windows 8.1. Still, some VARs and integrators say that while getting clients to consider 8.1 can be a challenge, those clients get excited when they hear about features and benefits.

In other words, although the PC market is hardly dead, success will mean that channel professionals will have to undertake heavy education efforts, even with Microsoft's laser focus on making Windows 8.1 the success that 8 was not.

For a sense of how touchy the situation is, remember back to May when Microsoft trumpeted how 100 million licenses of Windows 8 and 8 RT had already sold, keeping pace with the first six months of the Windows 7 introduction. Given the relatively blazing adoption of 7, that would seem to be good news. And yet, the numbers do not show sell-through to end users. The $900 million write-down of Windows 8 RT inventory suggests that there may be fewer sales to actual users than Microsoft would have liked.

"I think we had hoped for more willingness of people to just embrace a big change like that." Jay Paulus, Director of Windows Small Business Marketing, Microsoft

"I think we had hoped for more willingness of people to just embrace a big change like that," says Microsoft Corp.'s Jay Paulus, director of Windows small business marketing. "It's definitely a good reminder that when you have more than a billion people using your software, change is hard for people."

Paulus points to a lack of variety of devices at launch as a major reason for the underwhelming adoption rate. But he admits to a second one as well: a perception by many that shifting to Windows 8 would be difficult.

Unfortunately, the perception wasn't groundless. "The dichotomy you have is the legacy PCs don't have touch and all the new class of PCs do have touch," says Wes Miller, a research analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "I don't know why people thought the world would fall in love with it. Even friends I have who work at Microsoft will admit it is not fun to use it without touch. Every PC that existed prior to [Windows 8] shipping didn't have touch. So you're talking about replacing one of the more expensive components [of a computer]." On laptops, an upgrade is practically impossible.

"The mistake [Microsoft] made with Windows 8 is that they saw the world was changing and they saw they had to make some changes to lead," says Jeff Kagan, technology industry analyst. "But they didn't have any consideration for their existing customer base."

Some people thought they would go to Windows 8 for mobile, according to Adam Hartung, managing partner of Spark Partners, a business consultancy in the Greater Chicago area. "They thought, 'Because I've been using laptops so long I hope this will be easy," he says. "We saw people doing demos. This doesn't look like Windows and it doesn't look like the iPhone or iPad or like Android devices. And the fear factor went shooting up."

The change in how to use the operating system was serious. Although it could be learned in a few hours of fiddling around, no one wanted to think about investing that amount of time. The immediate perception was of a practical business risk.

"Companies put a lot of time and effort getting up to Windows 7, [and] there are still companies out there adopting Windows 7," says Mike Hogan, general manager of the Microsoft team at Gardena, Calif.-based integrator and LAR En Pointe Technologies. "[In some companies there's a sense of], 'We just made a huge major change and now we have to start gearing up, developing, and getting ready for the next version."

There are other practical problems as well. "As I talk to CIOs, the concerns they've been running into is they can't roll Windows 8 out because of a drivers issue" with their existing hardware, says Peter Renner, professional services director for the En Pointe Microsoft practice. And software vendors also have yet to really catch up to the platform, possibly because they have been focused on Google Android and Apple iOS in a move to mobile.

One last major problem is just that: mobile. Millions of users have found that they just don't need a PC's full power to handle everyday email, Web browsing, and social media. Although one of the reasons for Windows 8 was to support tablets, Microsoft is late to the game.

It's not as though no companies have moved to Windows 8. It's just that the changeover isn't what Microsoft and many channel partners had hoped for. "We have seen a demographic gap," says Renner. "Generally companies with younger workforces have been quicker to adopt Windows 8. The tile or button approach is easier to adopt versus people used to having a desktop icon or Start button."

This isn't the same as saying that Windows is doomed. "The potential for Windows 8 is there, if Microsoft can crack the code that they haven't been able to do so far-the code of getting the customer to like Microsoft and Windows 8," says Kagan.

Many channel partners have been excited about Windows 8 and are even more so with the emergence of 8.1. Here are just some of the features that VARs and analysts interviewed by ChannelPro-SMB point to as important:

  • Internet Explorer support in Windows 8 was dodgy. The tiled and desktop versions didn't necessarily work the same way. That is said to be ending with 8.1.
  • Windows 8.1 will bring back the Start button and the ability to boot directly to the desktop.
  • Security even under 8.1 is far better than in the past, particularly with UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface), which replaces the BIOS and can keep software without a proper digital signature from booting early on.
  • Miracast, the wireless HD video and audio streaming technology supported by Windows 8.1, can broadcast a screen image wirelessly to a compatible device, which can eliminate the need for a separate projector. That's particularly useful if a client has an Ultrabook without a DVI connector.
  • Workplace Join allows administrators to more easily manage desktops (although the feature requires Windows Server 2012 R1), offering meaningful control of BYOD.
  • The OS has the ability to recognize a wireless access point or router, know whether a user is at home or work, and provide the appropriate configuration choices, including the right printer at a particular location.
  • Starting to type the name of an application on the Start screen brings up the software, which can be much faster to manage than wading through a packed Windows 7 Start menu.
  • Windows 8.1 will support screens as small as 7 inches, meaning a wider range of devices.

Some of these features are responses to criticisms users had of Windows 8 when it first appeared. Many are not. Customers should have a lot to look forward to. But it will take much more for Windows 8.1 to succeed than an expectation that people will be happy with the changes.

The problem for the entire channel is that changing popular perception is tough. Microsoft has some major marketing campaigns for end-user education, but channel professionals need to wade in, embrace the platform, and communicate their excitement to clients.

A first step is to understand that everyone can move past the early problems of Windows 8. "Nobody likes change, especially when it's a big user interface change," says Michael Goldstein, president and CEO of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based LAN Infotech LLC. "After I put some third-party tools on [Windows 8] to bring back the Start button, I got used to it. Now we think it's great." Windows 8.1 makes that type of modification unnecessary.

According to Chris Hertz, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based integrator New Signature, Microsoft had for a time "lost its magic" in getting IT people excited. He thinks that Windows 8.1 is a good chance to recover. "I feel like 8.1 is a new operating system," Hertz says. "There are so many meaningful improvements that are cutting edge or bleeding edge."

Hertz has started rolling out Windows 8 to his customer base. First his company talks to customers about the benefits and then it examines any compatibility issues. If there are obstacles to adoption, he works with the customer on remediation and then tries to move the entire organization over at the same time.

"A lot of the customers we're dealing with in the businesses have bought Windows 8 at home in new devices," says Hertz. "It's increasingly becoming less of an issue to talk about Windows 8 because people are seeing it in the wild." And then comes the "tips and tricks" training, using a top-10 approach, which is aimed at getting people excited about the platform.

Goldstein adds that it's important to emphasize the benefits to mobile computing, with a platform that is uniform from tablet to notebook to desktop. "If you're a laptop user, buy it touch, buy it Windows 8," he says. "That's your best bang for the buck today."

Pushing for acceptance is particularly important now, because eventually-and that could mean by the end of the year-Microsoft will flip the switch and OEMs won't be able to offer Windows 7 anymore. It is the company's ultimate lever. But by preparing clients, and themselves, channel professionals will find that Windows 8.1 will offer some killer features that will probably become as expected and second nature as Windows XP and 7 eventually did.

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