Are VARs Sold On The Business Case For Windows 8 Touch-Enabled PCs?


Jude Daigle wants Windows 8 to succeed. Badly.

In fact, Daigle is so focused on promoting Microsoft's newest operating system that he redesigned his company's home page to look like the Windows 8 interface. Computer Connections' website is decked out with colorful tiles promoting the latest desktops and notebooks, as well as networking, digital signage and other solutions.

But even with all that effort -- redesigning his website, filling his Greensburg, Pa., showroom with Windows 8 systems, and promoting the new OS to any client that will listen – Daigle is finding Windows 8 to be a hard sell.

"It's not like we're not trying," he said. "But I haven't had a single person enter my showroom who asked about Windows 8. And pretty much every business that's moving off of Windows XP is going to Windows 7, not Windows 8."

Computer Connections, of which Daigle is president and owner, is just one of many solution providers trying to boost demand for Windows 8 and jump-start a PC refresh that has yet to take place. Microsoft, meanwhile, believes it has the answer to creating demand for Windows 8 in the channel: by promoting the business case for touch-enabled PCs.

Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., has joined forces with several OEM and distribution partners to blitz the channel with training and marketing sessions on Windows 8's touch-screen interface for next-generation notebooks, Ultrabooks and all-in-one desktop PCs. But some Microsoft partners are second-guessing the strategy and are skeptical about business interest in touch-screen PCs.

CRN attended D&H Distributing's Mid-Atlantic Technology Show in June to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Microsoft and its hardware partners are making the case for touch screens in the enterprise -- and how the channel is responding to the new Windows 8 push.

THE WINDOWS 8 TRAINING PUSH

It's crunch time for Microsoft. The software giant has a packed meeting room at the Hershey Lodge in Hershey, Pa., at the Mid-Atlantic Technology Show. The session is titled "Windows 8: Devices for the Mobile Workplace," and it's standing room only with more than 100 solution providers.

Allen Goldberg, a senior product manager at Microsoft specializing in evangelism and training, takes the stage. The session begins with a long video -- nearly 10 minutes -- titled "Shift Happens" and it's filled with data points about the rapidly changing global economy and technology landscape.

When the video ends, Goldberg wastes no time in addressing some of the elephants in the room concerning Windows 8 -- and there are many. He tackles everything from Windows 8's lack of a Start menu button (Microsoft felt the tiles would be easier to navigate for mobile users) to the software giant's past failures (referring to Windows Vista as "Windows Voldemort").

But Goldberg spends much of his time and effort around the notion that Windows 8 was pushed out the door before it was ready because Microsoft was falling behind Apple and Android in the mobile device market.

"They did NOT rush to market with Windows 8," Goldberg said.

Instead, Goldberg said, Microsoft took its time to get Windows 8 right both for mobile touch-screen usage and for business usage -- which brings him to the next point.

"The iPad was NOT built for business," he said. "Windows 8 WAS built for business."

Goldberg goes on to highlight a number of Windows 8 attributes -- faster boot times, multi-monitor support, better security features and, in the case of Windows 8 Pro, enhanced Wi-Fi capability, a VPN client and Exchange ActiveSync support. And while the session title refers to "the mobile workplace," Goldberg spends a good deal of time talking about the end of Windows XP support and the opportunity for solution providers to upgrade those older systems to new Windows 8 machines by promoting the touch interface.

That's arguably the biggest point of all. If there are two messages Microsoft and its OEM partners have been hammering home this year at various events, it's that Windows 8 will deliver more functionality for business users than the competition (read: Apple) and that touch-screen-based notebooks and desktops are ripe for the commercial market.

That second point was trumpeted again later in the day during an Intel session titled "The Next Generation of Intel Architecture and Mobile Computing." While Sharon Alt, director of Intel's North American distribution business, began the session discussing the chip maker's new Haswell processor architecture, she spent much of her time talking Windows 8 and touch screens, which she called "the interface of the future."

Specifically, Alt talked about forthcoming Ultrabooks and AIO desktops, with will come with full touch-screen support. She also highlighted tablet-notebook hybrids as "the next big thing" because they offer the best of both worlds: the ease of use of a tablet and the functionality of notebook.

But solution providers just aren't seeing the touch screen as a selling point for businesses. Wendell Martin, sales manager at Landis Computer in Ephrata, Pa., attended the Microsoft and Intel sessions and has reservations about the strategy.

"I think it's great they're out there promoting Windows 8 because I'm a fan," Martin said. "But I'm not sure touch screens are the right fit here. For consuming information, the touch screen is an ideal interface. But for creating info, it's not."

Computer Connections' Daigle agrees. An Intel partner, he attended the chip maker's session and was eager to hear ideas about improving PC demand. But Computer Connections actually sells some touch-enabled systems, such as the HP Envy AIO desktop, and Daigle says touch-screen support doesn't even enter into the conversation he has with clients.

"I think Microsoft is kidding themselves," Daigle said. "The average user doesn't want fingerprints all over their 22-inch desktop screen. They don't want to have to reach across their desktop to interface with their system."

THE TOUCH-SCREEN TOSSUP

Why are vendors trying to make touch screens appeal to businesses?
As Alt said, the touch screen is considered the interface of the future. Vendors such as Intel believe how we interact with computing systems has fundamentally changed, which is why the chip company is making all new Haswell-based Ultrabooks touch-screen-enabled. Alt said Intel is hoping to capitalize on "consumer envy" in the enterprise.

"It used to be that the technology in your office was better than what you had at home. Now we're seeing the opposite," Alt told CRN. "It's time to put a new device in front of clients, especially small business."

But that envy may not be for touch. While solution providers say hybrid devices are gaining momentum, they aren't seeing touch-screen support for notebooks and desktops as a magic bullet.

Michael Pilling, director of corporate accounts at Lowery's in Thunder Bay, Ontario, said the solution provider is seeing PC refresh business pick up this summer, along with Windows 8 demand. But so far that uptick has had nothing to do with touch screens.

"I have yet to sell a single corporate account a Windows 8 PC with touch-screen support," he said. "There's no real demand for this kind of functionality right now."

Jeremy MacBean, director of business development at I.T. Weapons in Toronto, said his company isn't seeing touch-screen interfaces make their way onto notebooks and desktops yet.

"There aren't mobs of people with pitchforks and torches out there demanding their PCs and notebooks have touch-screen support," MacBean said. "It's more about mobile Internet access. That's the biggest priority, and everything else, including touch, is secondary."

Touch-screen interfaces' appeal depends on the user, he said. "You may have executives who want more touch-based systems but in terms of business use, there's no substitute for a mouse and keyboard," he said. "It's getting more appealing to use tablets and touch-based PCs for mobile use, but I don't think the demand is there yet [for general office use]."

Microsoft is apparently hoping to turn the consumerization of IT and BYOD to its favor in the PC market, but that's easier said than done.

Lisa Caldwell, director of user experience at Involution Studios, a Boston-based software designer, said comparing true mobile devices with PCs in these trends is comparing apples to oranges.

"The whole BYOD trend and getting touch-screen devices into the business world has been driven by the employees, not the employers," Caldwell said. "Businesses aren't demanding that their employees use touch-based mobile devices or upgrade to PCs with touch screens."

And even if Microsoft and its partners try to sell to the employee rather than the employer, touch screens still aren't a great match for business from a user experience perspective, Caldwell said. "It's a much less lower fidelity input and it's less accurate than a keyboard and mouse," she said. "And most PC software isn't designed for touch screens."

Solution providers aren't shutting the door on touch-screen PCs completely, however. "I think once Windows 8.1 takes hold," Lowery’s Pilling said," you'll start to see people getting used to the new interface and catching up to the Windows 8 touch-screen experience."

Landis Computer's Martin feels Microsoft should use its considerable marketing muscle to promote the more business-centric features of Windows 8 instead of touch. "I do think the PC experience will evolve with touch screens for notebooks and desktops, but it will be slow," Martin said. "I think right now Microsoft is better off talking about Windows 8 in respect to better security, faster boot times and things that will really appeal to businesses."

In the end, Computer Connections' Daigle believes Microsoft is struggling with what it wants to be: A consumer device company? A business software company? Both? Ultimately, Microsoft is confusing consumer desire with business need, he said.

"Touch-screen support will facilitate some Windows 8 adoption, but it'll be with consumer notebooks and hybrids, not office systems for business," Daigle said. "I just think Microsoft is missing out on what people want."

PUBLISHED AUG. 5, 2013