Technology & Freedom

Are gov’t workers ready for the Windows 8 transition earthquake?

Are gov't workers ready for the Windows 8 transition earthquake?
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gives his presentation at the launch of Microsoft Windows 8. Photo credit: AP

The latest version of Microsoft’s Windows operation system has arrived, with an impact that measures 8.0 on the Richter scale. A glance at Windows 8—even the swiftest glance stolen during a fast-paced TV commercial—reveals that this version is different. Really different. It doesn’t look like Windows at all.

Computer professionals have always been a bit exasperated at the reluctance of ordinary users to try new things. Why do so many of those stubborn, hidebound regular folks insist on clinging to old-fashioned legacy systems when the hot new product is so obviously superior?

Of course, wise computer professionals have always known that average users don’t enjoy exploring systems and learning their capabilities the same way computer geeks do. For the tech addict, a bold new version of major software is a Christmas present waiting to be unwrapped; for many others, it’s more like a bear trap primed to snap shut and cripple their productivity.

That’s the looming problem with Windows 8, which was optimized for use on touch screens. The old landscape of a desktop, program icons, and a Start menu is gone; now you get a patchwork of animated rectangles, known as “live tiles,” which preview and activate various applications. Some of the old Windows functions have been deemed unimportant by Microsoft engineers and hidden away.

Nowhere will this be felt more intensely than among government users, many of whom are still on WinXP. While there are no rollout predictions at this point, Windows 8 will start to pop up on personal machines and the best guess is workers will hear the first official agency Win8 transition before year-end 2013, and it will become a budget issue in the next fiscal year.

This new approach may well be vindicated over time. Microsoft did spend over a billion hours perfecting Windows 8, after all, and it has some terrific features. But initial reports indicate a worrisome degree of confusion on the part of business users, particularly since written instructions from earlier versions of Windows are entirely invalid under the Windows 8 environment.

Since the 1990s, support teams and technical writers have known better than to tell users to launch a certain application or click a certain desktop icon, because desktops are frequently rearranged. Instead, they would instruct users to follow a certain sequence of steps beginning with the Start menu … which is gone now. A number of other practices that were generally applicable from Windows 95 all the way through Windows 7 will have to be re-written.

Lots of training

How difficult will users find the transition to Windows 8? A November article in Forbes provided a clue by noting that electronics superstore Best Buy has “invested 50,000 hours worth of training to bring employees up to speed.” Such retail outlets may find consumer confusion over the new Windows operating system a boon to their business model, as customers flock to brick-and-mortar retail outlets known for good customer service. Best Buy has been making a strong effort to play up this advantage to holiday computer and tablet shoppers.

On the other hand, corporate IT professional Scott Alan Miller was writing of a “user revolt” on the Datamation blog in late October. “In the past, Windows on the desktop has delivered a predictable user experience requiring little to no retraining,” Miller observed. “Windows 8, by contrast, requires extensive retraining, makes workers less efficient even after adapting to it and requires all users to be power users in order to be effective.” The management team at his firm wondered if Windows 8 offered enough benefits to justify the retraining costs, as they fou1nd the new interface “confusing, highly inefficient, and disruptive” during their initial hands-on sessions.

The problem facing these management teams is that transitioning to Windows 8 really isn’t optional in the long run. It’s the standard pre-installed operating system on most new computers, and while “downgrading” to earlier Windows editions is possible, it adds further expense. Also, the employees of every business in America will begin encountering Windows 8 on their home computers and tablets; it will be quite ubiquitous in less than a year. And at some point in the future, Microsoft will officially retire all prior versions of Windows, making support and software much harder to come by.

Multiply these issues by a factor of thousands and you have an idea of the dilemma facing the biggest employer of all: the government. Many agencies are actually still in the process of fully implementing Windows 7, and won’t be eager to begin rolling out an even more dramatically different operating system.

Quite a few government computers are still running the elderly Windows XP, including “most of the Commerce Department,” according to public sector IT blog GCN. Jumping to Windows 8 from XP would require a huge investment in software and training. 50,000 hours of training was no small expense for Best Buy; imagine that cost projected over the gigantic local, state, and federal workforces.

But there are also costs and inefficiencies involved in running different government agencies on different computing platforms, including confusion among employees who transfer between offices and agencies.

Microsoft obviously hopes that users will fall in love with Windows 8, the most radical overhaul of its flagship product in the mass-market era. Corporate and government IT managers may find the courtship very expensive.

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