Microsoft (MSFT) ships Windows 8.1 today. Windows XP support reaches its end of life on April 8, 2014. And Windows 7 continues to hum along. For VARs preparing to refresh customer PCs and mobile devices, what's the best path forward? Here are a few educated guesses from The VAR Guy.

Yes, Windows 8.1 addresses many of Windows 8.0's shortcomings. That could be good news for consumers. And in the corporate market, there's certainly interest in Windows 8.1 on tablets and mobile touch systems. But most market research firms and analyst organizations -- Forrester, Gartner and IDC among them -- continue to recommend Windows 7 as the ideal PC operating system for most corporate desktops and laptops.

Generally speaking, Windows 7 doesn't generate much market buzz. But that's precisely the point. For the vast majority of customers and channel partners, Windows 7 works as advertised and is the "safe" near-term choice in business.

Still, The VAR Guy believes Microsoft could wind up losing some market share as thousands of corporate customers seek alternatives to Windows XP -- which reaches its end-of-life support deadline on April 8, 2014. In the education market, Google Chromebooks seem to be chipping away (albeit slowly) at Microsoft's market share. And in some cases, businesses are also swapping out their Windows XP machines for tablets.

Microsoft wants to make sure those new tablets are running Windows 8.1. But tablet sales involving Apple iOS and Google Android remain dominant. 

The VAR Guy sees Windows 8.1 as a nice upgrade but not a game changer that will shift the mobile wars back to Microsoft's favor.

Next Microsoft CEO Must Address Partners

The big question mark remains Microsoft's search for a new CEO to succeed Steve Ballmer. Memo to Ballmer's eventual successor: Work closely with Channel Chief Phil Sorgen to ensure Microsoft once again becomes a channel-first company, rather than a channel-led company. There's a big difference.

Channel-first means all future Microsoft products -- Windows 9, Surface Pro 3, and the list goes on -- will arrive with full-blown partner programs in place that fully reward VARs, MSPs and other industry influencers. That simply hasn't been the case with too many products and services in recent years (the Office 365 and Surface launches were prime examples).

In the meantime, The VAR Guy's advice to partners remains unchanged. Windows 7 is the most logical choice for most of your customers. And before you sell any Windows 8.1 systems, make sure you've got plenty of hands-on experience with the operating system yourself.