When Windows 8's beta version becomes available for download on Wednesday, Microsoft expects many enterprises to jump at the chance to give the new operating system a test drive, but some industry analysts doubt that there will be much interest among corporate IT officials.
Most organizations are focused on Windows 7, whether they have already implemented it, are in the midst of rolling it out, or are still planning its adoption, so it's unlikely that IT departments will give Windows 8 a serious look at this point, analysts said.
However, Microsoft is betting otherwise, confident that Windows 8 packs enough enterprise IT features and functionality that IT officials will find attractive and compelling.
"The important thing when we think about Windows 8 in a business environment is how we've thought about reimagining Windows and the value it can bring to our end users," said Erwin Visser, a Senior Director for Windows at Microsoft. "The context here is that the world of work has changed dramatically over the last years."
Microsoft will officially announce and release the Windows 8 beta at an event in Barcelona, Spain, where the mammoth Mobile World Congress conference is taking place. The Windows 8 beta available on Wednesday will run on machines with x86/64 chips from Intel and AMD.
Earlier this month, Microsoft said that around this time it will also distribute to hand-picked developers and hardware partners a test version of Windows 8 for devices with ARM chips, called WOA, loaded on test PCs.
In recent months, Microsoft has been meeting with enterprise customers to discuss Windows 8, and has found them very interested in the operating system's features for tablet devices in particular, he said. Unfortunately, Microsoft wasn't able to provide any of those customers as references for press interviews at this point.
"One big point of feedback from our customers is how we can help them make their end users more mobile, and give them access to corporate resources from home, from mobile scenarios like a coffee shop, on the road," Visser said.
Indeed, Windows 8 has been designed from scratch for "touch centric" devices, namely tablets, which, thanks to the popularity of Apple's iPad, have not only taken the consumer market by storm but have also invaded workplaces as part of the "bring your own device to work" trend.
Analysts agree that Windows 8 will be very compelling for enterprises eager to roll out properly configured tablets to their employees, to cut down on the often chaotic and unsafe practice of having them use their personal tablets at work. However, it's unlikely that Windows 8 will be broadly deployed across corporate desktops any time soon, they said.
"Is Windows 8 going to be attractive to enterprises? The answer in the short term is: probably not," said Al Gillen, an IDC analyst. "Enterprises tend to be conservative about their deployments and a new Microsoft product coming out the door that has a lot of improvements and changes represents a source of potential problems."
"When this product launches, enterprises that are currently deploying Windows 7 are unlikely to stop and begin deploying Windows 8," he added.
Gartner estimates that in developed countries Windows 7, which began shipping in October 2009, has been fully implemented in about 10 percent of enterprises, while 55 percent are in the process of deploying it and 25 percent are just starting, said Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst. The remaining 10 percent have barely looked at it.
Except for those planning to roll out tablets, most organizations will skip Windows 8 entirely, Silver predicts. "Most organizations haven't yet migrated from Windows XP. They're in the midst of their Windows 7 deployments and they need to stay the course and maybe even accelerate their Windows 7 deployments," he said.
"We don't see that many organizations that are just finished with their Windows 7 deployments will look at Windows 8 and say: 'Yes, lets do it again,'" Silver added.
As of Dec. 31 of last year, more than 525 million Windows 7 licenses had been sold since its launch, and it had been installed in about one-third of enterprise desktops worldwide.
According to Visser, the last thing Microsoft would want is for any enterprise engaged in deploying Windows 7 to stop on its tracks after testing Windows 8. "Our message to enterprises is that it's important for them to continue their Windows 7 deployments because those investments will carry forward to Windows 8," he said.
Microsoft hasn't said when it plans to ship Windows 8, but IDC's Gillen believes that the company will try hard to have it ready in time for this year's holiday season, loaded in new consumer PCs and tablets. "There's a fair amount of pressure on Microsoft not to miss the holiday shopping season," Gillen said.
Indeed, during Microsoft's second fiscal quarter, ended Dec. 31, revenue at the Windows & Windows Live division shrank 6 percent to $4.74 billion, hurt in particular by a slowdown in consumer PC sales.
The success of Windows 8 has serious implications for Microsoft. "Windows 8 is perhaps the most critical release of Windows we've had probably back to as far as Windows 2000 Professional or even Windows 95," Gillen said. "I see this as being so fundamentally important."
While Windows is entrenched and dominant in PCs, it is a minor player in tablets, a critical market in which Microsoft has to solidify its position. "Whether Windows 8 is great or not doesn't necessarily change Microsoft's position in the PC space. But if Windows doesn't become competitive in tablets, it leaves Microsoft in a very vulnerable position," he said. "It's absolutely critical for Windows 8 to be successful in tablets."
Gartner's Silver expects Windows 8 to do much better commercially right out of the gate in the consumer market, which welcomes, and even encourages, more frequent operating system releases than the enterprise.
Still, Visser makes a case for strong interest in Windows 8 by IT departments as well, listing features like Windows To Go, which lets users boot and run Windows 8 from USB devices like flash drives, and the new, much trumpeted Metro UI, designed with touch screens in mind.
IT officials will also be interested in Windows 8's new features which simplify the way end users manage their connections to Wi-Fi and mobile broadband networks, as well as in its virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) improvements, he said. In addition, Windows 8 also features security enhancements, such as a new secure boot process.
These and other enterprise IT features represent a compelling case for IT professionals to start looking at Windows 8 and try out the beta, to see how the finished operating system eventually will offer their organizations business value, Visser said.
Gartner's Silver, however, thinks Windows 8 may share the fate of Windows Vista, which enterprises largely bypassed.
"Some of those Windows 8 features will be compelling for organizations, but the question is: Will they be compelling enough for organizations to go back into that project and re-do a bunch of desktops again? For most organizations we think the answer will be: no," Silver said.
"It's possible some organizations may decide to deploy Windows 8 on new machines that come in but I wouldn't really expect that to happen much before the beginning of 2015 and by then we'll probably be looking at Windows 9 around the corner," he added.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.