A new OS for a laptop computer is one thing. A new OS as the center of an enterprise computing strategy is something else. Microsoft hopes Windows 8 is both.
Among the ideas Microsoft has discussed in presentations about Windows 8 is the notion of tablet devices as true enterprise platforms. While some vendors and CIOs might argue that existing tablets have already proven their enterprise worthiness, there's little doubt that many companies have been waiting for a tablet OS that is designed to be centrally deployed and managed before making the official plunge into the deep end of the tablet pool.
In a presentation at the just-concluded Gartner Symposium in Orlando, Fla., David Willis, a Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst who is the firm's chief of research for mobility and communications, spoke about the things that an enterprise must consider when decisions are being made about adding Windows 8 or any tablet devices to the enterprise platform mix.
The first two things that Willis pointed out were the sort of ideas that seem simple, and yet don't stay in the plans for many companies.
The first is that few companies are going to be able to run a single operating system across a platform type, much less the entire enterprise. While the idea of Windows 8 on every client device is seductive, our current IT environment makes such homogenous ecosystems less common than the proverbial hens' teeth. The second concept is just as important and even more likely to be outside the thinking of the enterprise IT staff.
Turning tablets into enterprise platforms isn't about making employees happy: it's about making them more productive. While happiness is often a very good thing, it's rarely sufficient (in and of itself) to justify the expense of bringing a new client type into the enterprise IT mix. A focus on productivity will keep IT moving in a rational direction and might even allow for the achievement of employee hapiness. Reversing the emphasis will seldom work as well.
Willis spoke of the need for thinking about different types of machines in different roles within the enterprise, rather than trying to tie every device (and every employee) into a one-size-fits-all straightjacket. Fully specified and rigidly controlled devices are the proper response for very specific functions tied to single applications and sensitive data. Enterprise-supplied and controlled devices that fall short of the full lockdown implied in the first set of devices are ideal for the general corporate role and can be appropriate for many different levels and types of employee. Spreading out farther, we get into the realm of the employee-supplied device.
BYOD can be an ideal solution for employees who need access to targeted application data, including email, calendar/PIM, and document sharing. In general, these BYO devices will have less corporate control and awareness, with many companies moving to a use model in which the organization has the ability to wipe specific application data without harming the entire device. Questions of confidentiality, regulatory compliance, and legal discovery availability plague these devices owned by employees, but management abilities built into Windows 8 promise to simplify at least some of the issues around BYOD and corporate responsibility.
One of the more serious points Willis made concerned justification for tablet devices and the way they should be considered in the overall corporate mix. These are, he said, "third devices," that supplement laptop computers and smartphones without replacing either. Too many companies, he said, try to justify tablets by asking the question of how many laptops can be discarded or how many smartphones not purchased. These are the wrong questions, he said, missing the strength and the point of tablets. They are highly mobile devices that augment information gathering and collaboration, and should be seen (and used) in that context.
There's no question that context is critical, and the context of the Windows 8 launch is the growing presence of tablets in the enterprise. Will Microsoft's Surface and the host of Windows 8 tablets that join it in the market become the de facto standard tablet in the enterprise? That's the question that Microsoft, its shareholders, and the rest of the industry want to see answered. The answer begins to appear on Friday. Whatever it happens to be, how will you and your enterprise use the result?