Microsoft's announcement of the first preview release code for Windows 10 has seen the firm place more emphasis on the enterprise, after the ill-fated attempt with Windows 8 to woo consumers away from devices such as Apple's iPad.
Windows 10 is being touted by the software giant as its "most comprehensive platform ever", which will span everything from PCs to tablets to servers, and even devices aimed at the Internet of Things.
However, Microsoft has been careful to listen to its business customers first, as Terry Myerson, executive vice president of Microsoft's Operating Systems group, made plain in his blog post regarding the new platform.
"During the design of a new Windows, we spend time with many diverse customers. One of the most important of these customers is the enterprise. In the past year I've talked to dozens of enterprise customers and listened to how they are using and deploying Windows, and what they need from us," he wrote.
Microsoft badly needed to take this approach, according to Annette Jump, research director at analyst Gartner, as adoption of Windows 8 has been minimal in the enterprise market, and customers risk getting stuck on outdated and potentially unsupported platforms.
"In Europe, I would say that less than 15 percent of PCs now in enterprise use are Windows 8, and most of those are touch-enabled tablets and laptops," she said.
"Many businesses up to this year have still been migrating from XP to Windows 7, and those on Windows 7 are not really planning to move to Windows 8, so this presents a challenge for Microsoft, as customers are getting stuck on older and older software."
The first sign of the new approach is that Microsoft has started sharing code earlier, so that it can get feedback from customers testing the preview code to help guide the remaining development work.
Thus, while the technical preview is scheduled to be available to download via the Windows Insider Programme from today (1 October), the final code is unlikely to be delivered before the middle of 2015, the firm warned.
Another sign is that Windows 10 is set to be a more familiar environment for existing Windows users than the Metro-style user interface introduced with Windows 8, which has proved unpopular and a potential training headache for firms.
"The lack of appeal for Windows 8 on non-touch devices has been a major issue," Jump said. Microsoft has been slowly addressing this in subsequent releases, but there is still "little enthusiasm for upgrading", she added, and so anything it can do to create more interest and positive perception would be a step in the right direction.
Windows 10 thus brings back the Start menu of older versions of Windows, but with adaptations to include the Live Tiles of Windows 8, while all applications run inside a window with title bars on the desktop once more, and the little that Microsoft has so far shown of Windows 10 makes it appear more reminiscent of the popular Windows 7 release than the Windows 8 version that superseded it.
Perhaps more importantly, Microsoft is also aiming to eliminate the difficult and costly migration process that has led many enterprise customers to put off deployment of new versions of Windows until it is absolutely necessary.
"We are creating a streamlined, reliable, in-place upgrade process that can be initiated using current management infrastructure. Through new dynamic provisioning capabilities, businesses will be able to configure off-the-shelf devices, without reimaging," said Jim Alkove of the Windows enterprise programme management team at Microsoft.
Tackling this is a good move, Jump said: "Upgrading is certainly a big issue, often because of application compatibility issues, and companies find it difficult to manage multiple operating systems."
Intriguingly, Microsoft seems to be promising that organisations will be able to choose the pace at which they apply new updates.
Instead of forcing firms to choose either the fast-moving consumer update pace or lock down mission critical environments for just security and critical updates, there will be an in-between option for systems that aren't mission critical, but need to keep pace with the latest innovations without disrupting the flow of business.
"Whatever Microsoft can do to simplify upgrades, or enable in-place upgrades, because that's not something that has really existed for Windows before, I think that will be a very welcome piece of news for enterprise users," Jump said.
Microsoft is also signalling that Windows 10 will have improved enterprise-grade security, identity and information protection features, plus simplified management and deployment.
Not much detail has so far been disclosed on these capabilities, but Microsoft said that identity protection is likely to be based on work it has done to take the concept of multi-factor solutions for controlling access, seen with smartcards or token-based access control, and build that right into the operating system, eliminating the need for extra security hardware.
Microsoft hinted that Windows 10 will also go beyond the encryption capabilities provided by BitLocker in order to protect user data even if it is copied off the system and onto USB drives or to the cloud, and that this will use some form of container technology.
"With Windows 10 we are able to provide an additional layer of protection using containers and data separation at the application and file level - enabling protection that follows the data wherever it goes," said Alkove.
On the management side, it appears that Microsoft is looking to extend the cloud-based management support it already has with services like Windows Intune to bring capabilities more in line with mobile device management to traditional laptops and desktops.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is aiming to converge its various Windows platforms from a developer standpoint, so there will be a way to create universal apps that will run on a smartphone, tablet or desktop or laptop PC.
From 1 October, a technical preview version of Windows 10 for x86-based desktops and laptops will be available from the Windows Insider Programme website.
Testers will be able to sign up to try out the code, but Microsoft warned that this is intended for experts and IT professionals, and should not be deployed on systems for production use.
Microsoft said it will also release technical previews for the Windows 10 wave of Windows Server and its associated management tools in the near future.
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