New components have a knack for showing off the weakness of old components. That's a lesson some early adopters are learning through Windows 8.
It's no secret that the new Windows 8 interface is optimized for touchscreens. It's also no secret that most enterprise customers aren't going to run out and scrap their thousands of personal computers just to let employees start pawing the displays. Instead, most companies will make use of existing systems, both desktop and laptop, and phase in Windows 8 on a combination of their legacy hardware and new systems. On both categories of client hardware, there's a a single component that will have a huge impact on the quality of the user experience.
I'm talking about the touchpad, of course. Barring a touchscreen, a touchpad is the best way to use the tile-based New Windows interface. Some of the existing laptops in your enterprise fleet will have touchpads that work with Windows 8, though the reality is that many of them will be marginal for a good Win 8 user experience. You'll give these to users who are the first adopters (but not the high-status corporate users) and they'll figure out how to make things work while bad-mouthing Windows 8 to anyone who'll listen. The more interesting decisions will come when you decide to add new machines to the enterprise client fleet.
There has been a list of component specifications and qualities that IT departments traditionally use in making purchase decisions for client fleet purchases. CPU, graphics, RAM, hard disk capacity, and I/O functions topped the list, and here's the most important hardware note you'll get for your migration to Windows 8: It's time for your list to change.
To begin with, CPU speed no longer matters. That's a hard admission for me to make, since I started my career running Whetstones and Dhrystones on computers to compare fixed- and floating-point performance. Today, though, every CPU you're going to find in a laptop or desktop computer sold for enterprise use is fast enough. The same is broadly true of graphics performance, though you'll want to make sure that your system is optimized for virtual desktop graphics. A GPU is an important piece of the puzzle, and Open GL/X Windows support is critical. RAM? Get lots. Hard drive? Not nearly the concern in enterprise machines as in consumer computers, so feel free to go smaller. I/O? Look to your security standards for guidance. That leaves touchpad resolution and quality as the key differentiators you'll want to be looking at in new machines.
Gesture-capable touchpads are one of the components that are sufficiently new to be un-benchmarked in most organizations. What does that mean? It means calling up your favorite hardware vendors, ordering examples of all the candidate laptops (or desktop computers) and setting up usability benchmarks. Yes, it will cost a few dollars in resources and time, but the results for Windows 8 productivity are sufficiently high to make it worthwhile to go through the effort. Windows 8 is here. User productivity is critical. So testing to get this one component right is absolutely critical.
It's been a while since we had a piece of client hardware for which performance was critical. Now we do. Dust off your testing group and put them to work -- your bottom line will be the long-term winner.