As summer grinds into fall, I’ve got exactly one thing on the brain: BUILD, Microsoft’s new Windows 8 developer show that’s scheduled for early September. But as I write this in the days leading up to BUILD, Microsoft was nice enough to accommodate with a lot of news from its Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) 2011, Microsoft’s annual partner show.

 

XP Support Expires in Less Than 1,000 Days

At its WPC in July, Microsoft announced that support for Windows XP would finally expire in 1,000 days, allowing the software giant to continue its campaign to get customers off of the decade-old OS. (In a similar vein, Microsoft is also trying to get its corporate customers to stop using the aging Internet Explorer—IE—6.0 browser, which still ships with XP.) Microsoft offers many avenues for customers seeking to migrate from XP to Windows 7, but given the partner focus at WPC, it’s perhaps not surprising that the company chose to focus on solutions that have a partner component. And the key solution that meets both those criteria, of course, is Windows Intune. (I wrote about Intune in “Windows Intune Brings PC Management Into the Cloud.”)

Beyond the basics, Intune offers a few interesting benefits for organizations that decide to standardize their PC management in the cloud. One of those benefits is a fully licensed copy of Windows 7 Enterprise for each managed PC. But when you consider that Windows 8, the successor to Windows 7, will ship before that 1,000 days is up (Windows 8 is due by mid-2012), you might wonder if you should wait for that release. And certainly, there will be companies that are only partway through a Windows 7 migration when Windows 8 hits. Are there any issues with having both Windows 8 and Windows 7 in the same environment?

As it turns out, no. Last month’s preview of the new Windows 8 Start screen provides a hint of why that might be so (see “Windows 8 Start Screen Revealed”). Microsoft told me previously that Windows 8 and Windows 7 PCs would coexist nicely in the same environment and would largely be seen as identical by various management solutions and by Active Directory (AD)—because they’re largely identical under the covers, with both OSs even sharing the same exact hardware requirements, which is a first in the history of Windows. (In some cases, Windows 8 will require even less in the way of hardware resources than its predecessor.)

The biggest innovations in Windows 8 will be in the user experience, not the underpinnings. Because many corporations will no doubt choose to use the older, traditional Windows UI on Windows 8 as well, even that difference might not ultimately affect businesses for some time to come. So, yes, please—do continue with your migration away from XP. It’s old, insecure, less productive, and harder to manage. And you don’t need to use Windows 8 as an excuse to wait.

 

Now in Beta: Intune 2.0

Speaking of Windows Intune, the second major version of Microsoft’s cloud-based PC management service for small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs) is now in broad public beta and will be shipped in final form by the end of 2011. Intune 2.0 will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s used the first version. Both the admin interface and the client experience are similar to the first version. In addition, Intune 2.0 adds a crucial missing feature that many customers asked for in version 1.0: software distribution.

This is a big deal, and it means that anyone with admin privileges in Intune 2.0 can deploy MSI- and EXE-based software packages (Microsoft and third party) to remote PCs. And although there’s no direct linkup between Intune and Microsoft Office 365 (yet—come on, you know it’s coming), Microsoft did point out to me that environments using both services can very easily use the Intune software distribution feature to distribute the Office 365 desktop setup application, as well as Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2010, which is included with enterprise versions of Office 365.

Intune 2.0 isn’t just about software distribution, though, and Microsoft is adding a couple of other interesting new features and a nice bit of fit and finish work to all the UIs. A remote tasks feature lets admins perform more IT tasks on remote PCs, including full and quick antivirus scans, restarting the PC, and updating malware definitions. A new read-only admin users type provides a finer grained delegation capability, so you can provide some users with the ability to run scans and reports but not do anything destructive, such as edit or deploy policies. The license management functionality is extended to third-party software (compared with the first version, which supported only Microsoft software). Microsoft also talked up the partner story for Intune at WPC and introduced some new sales incentives, including quicker up-front payments for new Intune licensees.

 

Windows 7 Momentum

As of mid-July 2011, Microsoft had sold more than 400 million licenses for Windows 7, the company’s latest desktop OS. Microsoft provided a rough chart that more or less demonstrates that Windows 7 is selling at a faster clip than Windows XP was at the same point in its life cycle. This isn’t hugely surprising, because Microsoft has repeatedly claimed that Windows 7 is the fastest-selling version of Windows ever. But I came up with a better comparison that I think puts Windows 7 in perspective: Apple claims that there are now more than 50 million Mac OS X users, and I think it’s fair to say that Windows 7 is in use on more PCs than are all version of Mac OS X combined. And that’s not too shabby for a product that’s only been in the market for 20 months.

 

Windows Phone 7, Um, Momentum

Headlining the WPC this year, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that in Windows Phone 7’s first year in the market, the new OS has gone from being “very small” to being . . . “very small.” That’s not a typo—it’s a cute (and admittedly funny) way of saying that Windows Phone hasn’t experienced much in the way of market success yet. But with Nokia coming on board for the version 2.0 release, which is code-named Mango and will almost certainly be marketed as Windows Phone 7.5, many feel that the software giant will see great success in year two. I’m still on the fence, but I’ll say this: Windows Phone, even in its version 1.0 incarnation, has the user experience and technical chops to take on the iPhone and Android—and when you see Mango, you realize that Microsoft has taken the lead for good. Will users follow? We’ll see, but I hope so: This is a product line that deserves better success than it has found so far.

 

Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack 2011 R2

Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) is one of those toolkits that’s poorly understood by the masses but hugely loved by and valuable to those who use it. It’s basically available in two ways: as a benefit of Microsoft’s Software Assurance (SA) volume licensing program and as an add-on for Windows Intune, where users can subscribe to it for $1 per PC per month (in addition the regular per-PC subscription fee). In August 2011, MDOP received a small upgrade to MDOP 2011 R2. And the following three applications were updated as part of that release:

  • Microsoft BitLocker Administration and Monitoring (MBAM) 1.0 is picking up BitLocker administration and monitoring capabilities, with improved reporting.
  • Microsoft Diagnostics and Recovery Toolset (DaRT) 7.0 gains a few new features, including remote boot, which makes it possible to boot this recovery environment on PCs in your environment without needing to physically visit them.
  • Microsoft Asset Inventory Service (AIS) 2.0 provides an updated (and localized) UI and improved reporting, bringing AIS up-to-date with Intune 1.0’s reporting capabilities.

 

Tablets? There’s iPad and Then There’s . . . Well, There’s Nothing Else

It seems like a new Android-based tablet is released every single week now, but none of them have taken off in the market in any appreciable way. And then there’s the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook, which inexplicably shipped without an email app or any meaningful third-party support, and HP’s TouchPad, which looks almost exactly like a 2010-era iPad but also comes without any third-party support to speak of. Even ThinkPad’s creator, Lenovo, is getting into the game with a ThinkPad-branded tablet this year—but it’s running Android, not Windows. What gives?

The simple fact of the matter is that there are no truly across-the-board compelling alternatives to the iPad yet—and to be honest, I don’t see it happening until Windows 8 and a new generation of ARM-based competition appears in mid-2011. The issue isn’t all that complex, it’s just next to impossible for any of Apple’s would-be competitors to overcome. Although it’s possible and even easy for any one company to duplicate the look, feel, weight, thinness, and battery life of the Apple product, none of those are the real reasons that consumers buy iPads. Instead, people choose iPads because Apple offers the richest ecosystem, with the largest markets anywhere for online music, TV shows and movies, apps, podcasts, audio and electronic books, and other content. There’s just nothing like it anywhere else.

There’s one dark horse you should know about, however. Online retailing giant Amazon.com is widely rumored to be prepping its own massive tablet launch, and that device could finally provide Apple with a serious threat. Amazon’s tablet will run on Android, but it will also be backed by a trustworthy company that sells digital music, TV shows and movies, apps, e-books (Kindle) and audio books (Audible), and other content—and that can also afford to undercut Apple on pricing.

Beyond Amazon, it’s just a waiting game while Microsoft catches up. When Windows 8 ships next year, things might change. But until then, you’re just treading water if you think that any tablet wannabe makes any sense at all. Today, it’s all iPad. Tomorrow, maybe Amazon, and then Windows 8.

 

Toward a Simpler OS Future

After using the next version of Mac OS X—called Lion—and watching (and rewatching and rewatching) Microsoft’s video demonstrations of the new Windows 8 Start screen, it’s pretty clear that both OS makers are taking the simpler user experiences from their mobile OSs—iOS and Windows Phone 7, respectively—and bringing them to mainstream PCs. Apple will get there first—Lion will be broadly available well before you read this—but Microsoft’s vision for Windows 8 seems more forward leaning, so it’s a bit of a wash.

The move toward simpler user experiences is long overdue, but it will rankle power users the most. As with the Microsoft Office Ribbon UI before it, the Windows 8 Start screen is pretty but scary, especially for those of us who’ve spent the past several years honing our Windows skills. And not surprisingly, I’m seeing a lot of griping from power users in both the Windows and Mac camps who aren’t too thrilled with this new direction.

But don’t get distracted here. Simpler is always better, and although you can go too far, as Apple sometimes does (e.g., no Back button on the iPhone or iPad), the end result will be more approachable devices that serve a much wider audience. Fear not, power users. Your skills will always be required. But as with the rest of us, you might need to learn some new tricks when these new UIs go mainstream.