Windows 8: A New Era for Microsoft
For the past 20 years IT has been divided along well-established boundaries, with systems classified as either enterprise servers or desktop clients. More recently, those lines have become blurred. Peer-to-peer networking, tablet usage, cloud-based services, virtual desktop solutions and other technologies have introduced new capabilities that routinely cross the traditional lines of IT. What’s more, enterprise IT is no longer driven solely by internal needs, but is increasingly driven by the external forces of extra-enterprise and consumer IT.
These and many other factors portend significant change for Microsoft, founded at the outset of today’s IT revolution. Many analysts believe Microsoft is at a crossroads, facing decisions that are fundamental to its future.
In response, Microsoft has developed a three-point strategy to reinvent (Windows), reshape (apps) and redefine (IT). Windows 8 is the most significant step in that strategy since Windows 95. While Windows 8 has already received mixed reviews, its actual success in the market remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Windows 8 will influence the IT world for many years. Understanding Microsoft’s new scope and direction for Windows is critical for enterprise IT managers, who need to look beyond the question of when to upgrade desktops and examine what role Microsoft may play across all of IT.
Enabled by wired and wireless broadband, the current extremes of the IT spectrum are now the consumer and business ends of cloud computing, where the use of computing resources is invisible, mobile and seemingly limitless. Starting with Windows Vista, Microsoft has been reinventing Windows to expand into this new arena. The fullest version of this vision is coming to market in Windows 8. A new user interface, originally dubbed the “Metro UI,” introduces a visual interaction style, far different from the traditional Windows desktop. With this user interface, Microsoft seeks to establish a new common user interaction model that can be shared and reused across devices and systems, especially in the growth area of mobile computing. Microsoft upped the ante even further with the announcement of its own innovative tablet, dubbed Surface.
Under the covers, Microsoft has spent enormous effort expanding the core plumbing of Windows. Significant improvements and additions at the server level are designed to address the competition in large-scale enterprise virtualization. For example, Microsoft has upgraded Hyper-V so it can support host servers with 160 cores and 2 terabytes of RAM, with new reliability and performance features that directly compete with the high-end enterprise hypervisors.
With most of the growth in end user computing coming from tablets and smartphones, the traditional metaphor of interacting with paper-like windows on a virtual desktop via a mouse and keyboard is no longer a universal metaphor. In smart mobile devices, the OS is invisible to the user, who is only interested in using applications, not operating systems. With Windows 8 and its new user interface, along with its Surface tablet, Microsoft starts heading toward a world focused on apps only.
However, applications are also being transformed in a radical manner. Part of the application may be running in a cloud, part in an enterprise data center, part on a tablet, or (in the case of peer-to-peer communication) on another user’s device. Microsoft has extended the notion of what both Windows and applications are by bundling them together with frameworks and tools, blurring the lines across the entire IT stack.
App stores offer a new model of application management. No one asks how to install or upgrade an app; the ecosystem simply takes care of it.
An emerging trend is the ability of apps to integrate transparently with each other. This includes automatic detection, shared authentication and authorization controls, and the use of common cloud-based resources. In Windows 8, Microsoft’s cloud-based SkyDrive is the default destination for documents from its apps, synchronizing saved documents and making them available on all other Windows 8 devices. This automatic integration will allow users to seamlessly access the same data and documents from a set of apps running on all devices.
Microsoft is also trying to redefine IT in many ways. Changing the nature of applications through the new user interface’s Live Tiles and Hubs is the most notable example. In addition, Microsoft continues to expand its reach by playing in all areas of information technology across the IT spectrum and the traditional IT stack. This contrasts with competitors such as IBM and Oracle, which focus only on the enterprise space, or Apple and Google, which target the consumer space.
Microsoft is redefining IT by incorporating what traditionally would be separate frameworks and tools directly into applications and platforms. SharePoint has seen phenomenal adoption rates over the past few years, in part because it provides a near-instantaneous collaboration solution — a prebuilt, preintegrated set of applications, with no programming needed, yet programmatically extensible to serve as a platform for custom applications.
Windows 8, in all its versions, is Microsoft’s attempt to establish a common platform, a common user interface/app model, and a common framework for building, running and using computing systems — whether in the hand, on the desk, in the data center or in the cloud. Even if Microsoft does not dominate the IT space, it will become the most omnipresent technology provider.
Rick Muñoz is a senior technology architect at CSC and a researcher at the Leading Edge Forum. This article is adapted from an LEF report written by Muñoz (PDF).