Is Microsoft leveraging the consumer tablet craze to force enterprise Windows 8 upgrades?

A consumer following behind Microsoft’s Windows 8 tablets could lead to widespread enterprise Windows 8 adoption.

Much of the appeal surrounding Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 operating system stems from the compatibility it will offer across tablets and PCs.

By generating that appeal, Microsoft may successfully leverage two of the biggest ongoing trends in IT – consumerization and data security – to make Windows 8 a sure-fire home run when it finally does hit shelves.

In the past few years, we’ve watched consumerization of IT give way to BYOD policies, in which the IT department finally gets tired of watching employees go against policy and use their personal smartphones and tablets on the network. The conflict here is that employees want to use the devices with which they are comfortable, while the IT department has no way of synchronizing iOS or Android with the company’s Windows-based productivity environment.

Well, how about both?

In a conversation I had today with SmartDeploy CEO Aaron Suzuki, whose company assists enterprise customers with migrating operating systems, we discussed the potential impact of Windows 8 compatibility on the enterprise. One interesting possibility is how consumer purchases of Windows 8 tablets will influence the OS upgrade decisions of their employers.

A few things will need to happen, though. First, Microsoft will need to make quality tablets that consumers will want, at a price that is lower than that of Apple’s iPad. Given the success of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, the quality of which Microsoft tablets are expected to surpass, and the lessons learned from the high-priced BlackBerry PlayBook’s failures, sales of mid-range priced Windows 8 tablets could skyrocket.

“If you can get a Windows 8 device for cheaper than you can get an iPad and it does cool stuff, everyone’s going to get one,” Suzuki says.

Then, Microsoft will need to restrict this compatibility to Windows 8 only, because if it’s fully compatible with Windows 7, then enterprise customers will not upgrade.

“So now you have everyone bringing their cool Windows device to work and it does all these things, and they’ll start expecting LOB applications to work on that platform,” Suzuki says. “And if they’d migrated to Windows 7, they might work. But they also might not.”

What if they don’t work with Windows 7? What if Microsoft reserves its application compatibility for Windows 8? In a current Windows 7-based PC environment, an employee-owned Windows 8 tablet is no different than an iPad – it’s a device that is not compatible with the IT department and cannot be synchronized with the employee-provided PC.

However, unlike that iPad, the employer can upgrade the company’s computers to a software that does synchronize with personally owned tablets, without purchasing an entirely new fleet of computers.

As Suzuki put it, an employer who denies employees’ requests to use Windows 8 tablets for work purposes is basically “telling them to get bent.”

Here, we have BYOD in the company network, the problems of which can be resolved by an enterprise upgrade to Windows 8. Kind of a win-win situation.

“So at that end, Microsoft may hit it out of the park,” Suzuki says. “They might hit a major grand slam home run here, and that would be no accident, to make it a low-end disruption in that regard that they start with the consumer, get everyone addicted to it and get people to self-train on the platform so everyone is comfortable using it. Then the organization says it’s an easy decision to make.”

But beyond the obvious productivity benefits, CIOs may be even more tempted by the prospect of secure access to information. Rather than run the risk, which is quickly becoming a guarantee, that employees will access company information on their iOS or Android devices through an insecure connection or a faulty consumer cloud service, all company apps can be synchronized through Windows 8’s Hyper-V virtual desktop offering.

If these trends were to come together like this, Suzuki says some organizations may skip the traditional wait for the first or second service pack and upgrade sooner, and those that have yet to upgrade to Windows 7 may even skip it altogether.

Of course, a lot would need to go in Microsoft’s favor for it to succeed. But it appears Microsoft may be taking an approach from the ground up, effectively using consumers who purchase tablets as its salespeople pushing for enterprise upgrades to Windows 8. It would be kind of a counterattack against the growing band of iPad and iPhone users who are begging their employers to provide Mac computers.  

As Microsoft has seen, successfully targeting consumers with a Windows tablet is a big “if.” But if it does happen, the enterprise is far more likely to make the upgrade to Windows 8 if employees are already using it.

Colin Neagle covers Microsoft security and network management for Network World. Keep up with his blog: Rated Critical, follow him on Twitter:@ntwrkwrldneagle. Colin’s email is cneagle@nww.com.

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