If you want to get a feel for the Microsoft of tomorrow – that is, its new operating system Windows 8 – may I recommend spending some time with the mobile Microsoft of today – that is, Windows Phone 7.
If there's a case study for a corporate powerhouse seeming unable to get out of its own marketing way, it has got to be Microsoft, and these days the digital hamfistedness is all about deployment of Microsoft's new software environment called Windows 8. This code – which is probably at least six months off – already has rafts of doubters. And I am fielding pointed questions from dubious business owners as to whether it will be worth the hassle.
A months-long test of Windows Phone 7 units and study of Microsoft plans makes it pretty clear what the company has in mind for Windows 8.
For firms considering Windows 8, there is a perfectly easy way to get a feel for the product right now. Test out a Windows Phone 7, the awfully similar-to-Windows 8 mobile OS that is widely available on smartphones made by Samsung, HTC or Dell. In fact, an upgrade to the product called 7.5 or Mango is due out in next two weeks.
After testing Windows Phone 7 units for months, and comparing that with Microsoft's plans for Windows 8, it seems pretty clear what the company has in mind with this product. (Full disclosure: My firm creates content for an unrelated division at Microsoft.)
After significant exposure to Windows Phone 7 devices, both as freestanding units and as part of Microsoft's larger line of Web-based business products such as Office 365, it is clear security in 8 will be taken very seriously. Not only are basics including passwords and directories more carefully maintained, but security will be key for the entire centrally managed, on-premises business software experience Microsoft specializes in. Now certainly, there are going to be security issues with 8. The Web is too dangerous a slum for any software to be truly safe. But if having your business data flying around the Web makes you nervous, looking to Windows 8 for a security upgrade will be a smart bet.
Windows Phone 7, once configured properly – which can be real work, mind you – can move your company data from device to device easily. Microsoft really is beginning to master the trick of getting the same info from a PC to a tablet to a smartphone. In function after function, the Windows Mobile 7 platform was able to share information from Web-based portals to our desktop PCs and tablet computers. Of course, you are still dealing with a segmented mobile market. And when things don't work on Mobile 7, they really don't work. But the notion that only a cloud-based company (read: Google(GOOG)) can handle the virtual business experience is just nonsense.
I have to admit that in my long-term test of Windows Phone 7, I was surprised how well Microsoft plays in the mobile app sandbox. Third-party app heavies such as Facebook and Twitter were fast and easy to use on my test phones. For some apps – and I realize this sounds like heresy – the box layout of Phone 7 was actually faster and easier to deal with than similar apps on the Apple iPhone. And from what I have seen in Windows 8 demos, app users can expect a great PC experience. Sure, Windows 8 will be an overall step down, in terms of ease of use, from the Apple OS. But don't be surprised that for hard-core business apps, a Windows 8-enabled tablet, for example, will be darn effective to use.
For all the counterintuitively good experiences I have had with Windows Mobile 7 and Windows 8, let's get real. You are still dealing with Microsoft. Software must be bought, downloaded, configured, updated and deployed. Expect getting all the parts to function smoothly to take real effort. And real money. Even basic configurations such as managing a new user on an Office 365 account and getting it to work on a mobile phone was much more time-consuming than pulling the same trick with Google Apps. You can bet on this: Today's Web-oriented users – with their two-millisecond attention spans – will find Windows 8 a mega bore.
Here's the bottom line: Windows 8 will offer businesses powerful options for security, controllable apps and a mobile-friendly platform that can place even the wonkiest office software out in the field. But – and this is a major but – all this will come at a cost. Windows 8 will be pricey to buy and complex to deploy.
Whether that makes sense for your business will depend, frankly, on your business.