Will businesses adopt Windows 8? Or will Microsoft's next-generation operating system be ignored?
There's no easy answer to that question, and I expect to see lots of analysts get it wrong over the next year or two as Windows 8 completes its development cycle and rolls out into the marketplace.
But history suggests that Windows 7 will continue to dominate the business segment for years after Windows 8 is released. To understand why, you have to look at how Microsoft's enterprise customers make technology adoption decisions.
Consumers tend to buy a new operating system with a new PC and then deal with compatibility issues. Businesses, on the other hand, have to exhaustively test line-of-business applications to ensure that they are compatible with a new operating system; they also have to factor in training and support costs that go hand in hand with the rollout of a new OS.
If you have tens or hundreds of thousands of users, deploying a new OS is an expensive and complicated proposition, and it isn't done without extensive preparation.
Over the past two years, businesses that use Windows as their primary desktop OS have been testing, remediating, piloting, and deploying Windows 7. There's a certain urgency to that process, as extended support for the widely used Windows XP is due to end in April 2014.
Will those same businesses then turn around and begin planning deployments of Windows 8? Highly unlikely, given the sales and support lifecycle for Windows 7. In fact, Microsoft encourages its business customers to take a long-term view with this sort of deployment, offering a full 10 years of extended support for business editions of Windows.
In addition, Microsoft has a sales cycle that makes it relatively easy for enterprise customers to stick with a previous version for several years after its successor is released.
Microsoft has previously announced how its sales lifecycle works:
In the interest of providing more consistency and predictability with how we manage the Windows lifecycle, we are confirming our current policy of allowing retailers to sell the boxed version of the previous OS for up to 1 year after release of a new OS, and that OEMs can sell PCs with the previous OS pre-loaded for up to 2 years after, the launch date of the new OS.
I confirmed with a Microsoft spokesperson that this policy remains unchanged.
Here are the relevant dates for the Windows 7 sales and support lifecycle. I'm assuming that Windows 8 will be released in September 2012. If that date changes, you'll need to adjust the end dates for retail and OEM sales accordingly.
As you can see, the business editions of Windows 7 will be fully supported by Microsoft until the end of this decade. And there's also the sales lifecycle, which works on a different calendar.
For consumers, it will become increasingly difficult to buy a new PC with Windows 7 preinstalled a year or two after Windows 8 is released. For business customers, it's somewhat easier, as OEMs are allowed to offer downgrade rights with business editions of Windows for up to two years.
But for enterprise customers who purchase volume license agreements, that's a non-issue. Those license agreements allow enterprise customers to buy a new PC from an OEM with a Windows 8 license and then reimage it with their tested and preferred OS. For the next several years, that's likely to be Windows 7.
Is Microsoft OK with that outcome? Absolutely. In fact, a senior Microsoft executive told me last week that the company believes "enterprise customers will fully deploy Windows 7 today and use Windows 8 for certain scenarios." They're far more interested in moving businesses off of Windows XP and onto modern, supported Windows versions.
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