While Windows 8 is not expected until deep into 2012, the first rumblings of Microsoft's marketing machine started earlier this month as the company began disclosing new technologies to be included in the upcoming release.
Getting much of the attention is the product's new tiled interface, which replaces the Windows Start menu, which supports touch-only screens ranging from small screens on controller devices to large PC-based desktop screens and internal corporate kiosks. As part of that marketing machine rumble, Microsoft officials said they think the new technologies can be used as the interface for, if not help inspire, a new generation of touch-centric hardware devices.
IT executives see some opportunities to deploy the technologies in their shops, but need some questions answered before they can even conduct an initial evaluation. Some of the questions center around the compatibility of applications designed to take advantage of touch-centric mixing with legacy applications that are not. There are also questions about costs associated with training IT support people.
"Over the long term, yes, I see possibilities for this, but over the short term you'll have to deal with the challenges of tech support training and apps compatibility,” said Bill Yearous, vice president and CIO with The Seattle Times. “It is supposed to be compatible with things like Windows 7 -- sort of-- but there will be lots of questions about moving our legacy apps to it."
Yearous said he can envision many of the workflow processes associated with producing the paper and getting the paper ready for delivery to the printer, tasks that are not keyboard or mouse intensive, being replaced by touch screen systems.
"Looking at touch screens in the paradigm we have now may not make a lot of sense. But depending on how well the apps vendors and IT shops can modify their apps, it could drive how we use these devices differently," Yearous said.
Angelo Valetta, senior vice president and CIO with Sun National Bank also sees opportunities to deploy touch-centric technologies but, for now, largely in strategic areas. He sees them playing a role in the "branch of the future," where there will be an emphasis on self service where customers access information on products and services using touch-screen kiosks.
"We could use this to bring up subject matter experts on one screen, while customers were using touch technology on another screen,” Valetta said. “But we have to see how this technology is presented in Windows 8 and how it will interface with the hardware already out there."
Some analysts said they believe it will take larger IT shops quite a while to warm up to the idea of using touch technologies and tile-based interfaces on desktop PCs, as well as training costs and compatibility issues with mission critical applications.
"I think most IT shops will say it's cool technology but will stay with the classic interface for now, " said Al Gillen, program vice president of system software for IDC. "There will be a learning curve associated with a tiled interface as well as a real estate concern, and all existing applications today will be unable to take advantage of the tiling capability."
In demonstrations earlier this month, Microsoft officials said there should be "effortless movement" among existing Windows programs and new applications designed specifically for Windows 8.They said the full capabilities of Windows will remain available to users, including all the functions of Windows Explorer and Desktop, as well as compatibility with all PCs, software and peripherals that carry the Windows 7 logo.
For users who have no immediate need for touch capabilities, Microsoft officials said they can easily turn it off and revert to using their mouse and keyboards.
Microsoft officials emphasized the importance of HTML5 in developing applications that fully exploit Windows 8's more advanced features. Many IT shops are still in the tire-kicking phase with HTML5 with little real world development experience under their belts. Some add, however, that because an application developed with HTML can run on multiple platforms, the investment time and money will pay off.
"The big thing we are looking at (with HTML5) is developing an app that runs on a wide variety of platforms, yet maintain certain uniformity with that application," Yearous said.
Yearous added he expects the ramp-up time to properly train developers on version 5 will be no longer or shorter than any other language, but would initially rely on the expertise of outside contractors.
Microsoft officials declined to say when IT shops and third-party developers could expect to get their hands on the first beta release of Windows 8. Speaking at a Microsoft developer conference in Tokyo last month, CEO Steve Ballmer said the company remains committed to delivering the finished product in 2012. That statement however, was retracted by the company that claimed Ballmer "misspoke" about committing to a 2012 delivery.