After years of standardization on Windows XP, IT will predictably standardize on Windows 7 (and Office 2010) for the foreseeable future, a Gartner analyst said last week. Sadly, I think he's right, although I have to wonder about an alternate future in which IT embraces touch-based tablets and cloud services, and pulls systems management out of the Dark Ages.
"Enterprises will stay on Windows 7 as long as possible," Gartner analyst Michael Silver said last week at the firm's annual Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2013. Assuming Windows 7 doesn't get any lifecycle extensions like XP did, that means until January 2020, when Windows 7's extended support phase ends. And Office 2010, meanwhile, is supported through October 2020.
During a presentation at the show, Silver recommended that businesses "use the 10-year lifecycle of Windows 7/Office 2010 to standardize," waiting out the touch-first Windows 8 wave and seeing how things develop. In his view, which I also think is correct, the Windows desktop is on "life support" while Microsoft will push forward with the Metro environment.
This kind of standardization is certainly enterprise-friendly, and of course a far cry from the forward-leaning "rapid release cycle" that Microsoft is touting for its current products and services. And it will be enabled by Microsoft's decision to kowtow to demands of enterprise customers a decade ago, when it began stretching out its business product lifecycles.
XP, of course, is a special case, and its own lifecycle was extended a few times in order to make up for the delays in delivering Longhorn and then because the resulting release, Windows Vista, couldn't run on the mainstream PCs then in use in businesses. During a panel discussion at our own IT/Dev Connections show a few weeks back, I informally polled the audience about XP usage and the results were a bit disconcerting: Fully one half to two thirds of the audience is still nursing XP installations back at the home office.
This probably isn't surprising to you. But with Microsoft now pushing forward aggressively with its devices and services vision—and that rapid release cycle it's so proud of—the thought of enterprises standing down again, this time with Windows 7, has to be sending chills down the collective spines of the firm's evolving executive teams.
That it's happening in the midst of the worst-ever and longest-ever PC sales downturn in the history of the industry is likewise not hugely inspiring. According to analysts at Gartner and IDC—I typically average their measurements—PC sales declined in the third quarter by 8 percent year over year to 81 million units. The worst news? It was the sixth straight quarterly decline.
Enterprises that standardize on Windows 7 could trip up PC sales even further. After all, there's precious little reason to upgrade the hardware if you're going to continue running the same software for the next several years. This, in turn, will lead to a greater shift from PCs to tablets, overall. And since Microsoft isn't even remotely competitive in that device category yet, it could lead to deeper troubles for Windows, and thus for all of Microsoft—and for the entire user base, since we have all built careers around this company and its products.
That's a cute little Catch-22, no?
It gets worse. Over time, of course, businesses will have to update or replace their own in-house apps and intranet solutions. And when that time comes, IT will survey the user base and plan accordingly. In the world of 2013—let alone 2020—it's hard to imagine many businesses betting on Windows 8's Metro environment, which is currently immature and unpopular. Devices that run this environment are few and far between, and although they're getting better all the time, many find them to be strange compromises between "real" PCs and tablets. As a result, many organizations will begin investigating and developing solutions that run on top of popular mobile platforms—Android and/or iOS—and HTML 5, neither of which helps Windows or the PC market.
I feel like we're seeing a self-fulfilling prophecy in action here. Enterprises and IT will ignore Windows 8 and new-fangled hybrid PCs and Windows tablets in order to standardize on Windows 7 and old-school PCs. But when the time comes to upgrade in the future, they'll latch on to alternative mobile platforms instead of the Windows 8 platform that Microsoft released last year to address this very trend.
So should IT embrace Windows 7 (and Office 2010) for the next several years? Hell no. But I suspect that is exactly what's going to happen.