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Taming Change in the New Era of Computing

By now, you've had a chance at least to look at Windows 8 from a user and from a system administrator perspective. You've probably drawn some conclusions about it, perhaps formed an opinion, and possibly decided to adopt it or forego adoption of it for your company. If I were to offer a bit of sage advice to you, it would be: "Don't be too hasty." I aim that warning at those who either want to be early adopters or who don't want to adopt at all. Your haste, in both cases, will be costly.

System administrators, as an Information Technology ilk, are conservative – even downright stodgy – when it comes to support. We like stability. We like peace and quiet. We enjoy productive, silent users. We like change, but not just for the sake of change. It has to be positive and useful for us and our support realm. Adding a few new features to a desktop operating system is often not a good enough reason to endure the support tsunami that follows. Every new operating system or interface that comes out of the minds of operating system vendors isn't necessarily created with our best interests at heart. At first glance, Windows 8 looks like a system administrator's worst nightmare, with its new interface, no Start button, and unique ways of launching and closing applications.

For example, the lack of the Start button in Windows 8 will generate more support tickets than its presence ever did. Users have had 17 years' experience with the Start button, and now it's gone. Users need time to adapt. They need time to learn.

Whether you're implementing a new Mac OS X version, a new Linux desktop, or the latest Windows incarnation, you're familiar with that thorn, that one thing that makes your job as a system administrator so painful you'd almost rather endure some form of physical torture than upgrade your user base to a new operating system: The user learning curve.

If you adopt a new OS too early, users become less productive, complain endlessly, and open a lot of tickets to somehow "teach you a lesson." If you adopt too late, your now outdated OS causes crashes because of incompatibilities with new applications, causes users to complain because they've already converted to the new OS at home, and causes them to open a lot of tickets to "teach you a lesson." As we all know, they know more than we do.

So, when is the right time to adopt a new operating system if you don't bend to user pressure or marketing hype? The right time to update your desktop operating systems is when the vendors of your most critical applications update their software to support the new OS. No other driver matters as much. For example, if your critical applications run great on Windows 7 and the vendors of your critical applications plan to update their software in 18 months, then you should plan to update in 18 months. Coordinating with your vendors gives you plenty of time to test, install, break, fix, and create a new "gold" image for rollout.

The reason behind this advice is simple: Support. How many times have you called a software vendor's tech support line only to hear, "We don't support the application on that operating system"? It's not something you ever want to hear from a proprietary software vendor. Of course, software vendors will always blame the operating system; operating system vendors will always blame the application; they'll both blame the hardware; and you're stuck with the user staring at you as if you were the one who programmed the whole system.

You have to do what's best for your users in spite of what they want. You have to do what's best for your users in spite of what the marketing hype tells you, you should do. In the end, it's the peace of mind and stability that you strive for that drives your decisions. This new era of computing will send your head spinning if you try to make everyone happy. You can't. You have to resign from your job and find something else to do or resign yourself to accepting the best support approach, which is to comply with the wishes and whims of your application vendors. For productivity's sake (and for your own well-being), it's the only correct answer.