Microsoft leaves Windows 8 questions unanswered, say experts

The new Metro interface "looks great," but what's in it for enterprises?

Today's long-awaited look at Windows 8 has left analysts almost as perplexed as they were before Microsoft's top Windows executive walked onto a California stage.

But if Microsoft was hoping to generate excitement about the upgrade, it succeeded, if only because of the fast-paced presentation by Steven Sinofsky, the president of the Windows group.

"It all looks great," said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland-Wash. research firm that specializes in tracking Microsoft's moves. "If the goal was to get everyone excited, they did that. I was impressed by what they showed, by what they've done, but it's too much to digest. I think I'll have to watch the keynote [webcast] two or three more times to get it all."

During the keynote, Sinofsky and other Microsoft executives spent most of their time showing off what they called the "Metro experience," a tile-style, full-screen interface borrowed from Windows Phone 7 that's intended to address the company's lack of a true touch-based operating system.

"This is interesting for consumers," added Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst who attended the keynote. "Certainly, Microsoft has to catch up on tablets [with Apple and Google] and get consumers excited about Windows again. I think this was a good effort at trying to do that."

But for Cherry and Silver, who spend most of their time scrutinizing Windows for corporate clients, not consumers, there were tons of unanswered questions.

"We still don't know when this will be shipped," noted Cherry. "And we don't know how stable Windows 8 is. Remember, these were all demos, and demos are carefully rehearsed."

Silver echoed Cherry.

"They haven't made the case yet that enterprises will want this," said Silver. "I expect that they will have [enterprise-specific features] to show later, but at this point there are still lots of questions that haven't been answered."

Tops on his list: Can Microsoft successfully pitch Windows 8 as an upgrade for businesses that have just recently migrated to its predecessor, Windows 7?

"Microsoft has implied that [Windows 8] would not drive an upgrade cycle," said Silver, talking about corporations purchasing new computers to replace outdated machines and operating systems. "After all the work on Windows 7 deployment, organizations will think twice before deploying this everywhere," said Silver. "They're looking for a little respite, and planning to take a break because of migration fatigue."

But Cherry was taken with the apparently smooth integration of the two interfaces: Metro and the traditional desktop familiar to users for decades.

"It appears that they will coexist well," said Cherry. "I don't envision a lot of problems for businesses there, although we'll have to see how they handle group policies."

Even so, he was hesitant to applaud Windows 8 until he knows more.

"The story they're trying to tell -- that they've re-imagined Windows -- is a good story, but when I hear that they're making major changes, I remember that changes lead to instability."

Later today, Microsoft will distribute Samsung tablets with a developer preview of Windows 8 to attendees at the BUILD Windows conference, which Sinofsky kicked off with the two-and-a-half hour presentation.

Microsoft has not said anything about when it will release a Windows 8 beta that will be available to the general public.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more articles by Gregg Keizer.

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