One of the big computer news stories of the year is the upcoming release of Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system. This important small business software release comes at a time when businesses must face the reality that Windows XP extended support will cease as of April 2014.
Before that date, small businesses that rely on a supported XP operating system and software will need to upgrade either to the tried-and-tested Windows 7 or to the future promise of Windows 8. I'll tell you what you can expect from Windows 8, and I'll explain why some businesses will grab it and run while others will opt for Windows 7 instead.
Windows 8: All Things to All People?
Windows 8 is designed to bridge the gap between desktops and tablets. It's an operating system that can run on a tablet, a laptop or netbook or a full-featured desktop computer. Its new Metro design combines some of the hip functionality of a tablet with the work-day functionality of a desktop. The result is -- at first blush -- a mishmash of features, none of which integrate entirely seamlessly.
Figure 1: The new Metro design brings tablet looks and functionality to everyone.
Of course Windows 8 is still in development, so you can expect that some things will change if user feedback demands it. I looked at the Developer Preview, which has been available for a few months. The Consumer Preview was due for release at the end of February -- and the official release still a few months away.
What Windows 8 Means for Business
There are a few things in Windows 8 that will impact business. One is that several features that people use at work every day are gone, including the Start button, and the desktop is just another app you can choose to run from the new Metro start screen.
While the operating system boots very fast indeed, that speed won't make up for the inevitable confusion in working this operating system -- it is very different to anything we've seen on desktops before. However users familiar with Windows phones are likely to be more at home and experience less of a learning curve.
Windows 8 will likely appeal to tablet and touch-screen users and to home users, because the tiles and screen behavior is optimized for touch. For businesses the story will be very different. The Metro start screen does not look very businesslike with its live Twitter and news feeds, weather and stock information and games. It's not conducive to starting up and getting down to work.
Figure 2: The new Search Apps feature is the replacement for the Windows Start Menu and there is a lot to like about it.
In fact I think many small business software managers and IT departments will opt to disable the new Metro design even though doing so involves a registry hack.
Learning how to use Windows 8 will require a lot more training than Windows 7 does because Metro apps and regular Windows programs operate so differently. You can also expect that migrating to Windows 8 will result in a lot more work for your support personnel -- at least initially.
Touchscreen Vs. Keyboard
The Windows 8 experience is going to be very different depending on whether you use a touchscreen tablet or laptop or a traditional desktop with a keyboard and mouse. On a touchscreen, gestures will give you ready access to your applications, which are either full-screen, tablet-like apps or programs that you run from the more traditional Windows desktop.
Navigating the Metro interface with a mouse is a little cumbersome, but using keystroke shortcuts can help. Yes, keyboard shortcuts are back, and you'll want to learn them if you want to move around fast and efficiently.
What's Missing in Windows 8
Some interesting Windows features are missing in Windows 8. The start menu is replaced by a search feature which, interestingly, does a pretty good job. I disliked the Windows Vista/7 Start menu, but the Windows 8 Search -- Windows key + F and then click Apps -- is very functional.
There is no simple way to turn off the computer or to close Metro apps, which is confusing to say the least. Metro apps stay open as you use them, and the operating system takes care of closing unused ones and saving your work when resources are scarce. Close your laptop screen and the operating system hibernates automatically, but you'll have to learn a key combination to actually turn the power off.
For new users, all this may make the computer "easy" to use. For anyone with Windows skills it is frustrating to search for functionality that you're used to using only to find it simply doesn’t exist. For example, instead of looking at the taskbar to see what you have running, in Metro you have to press Alt + Tab to see what apps are launched.
Figure 3: Using Alt + Tab in Metro shows you the applications you have open.
Is Windows 8 for Small Business?
Who will benefit from Windows 8? Clearly small businesses that want to push out tablets will be the first to take up Windows 8. If tablets are -- or will be -- a vital part of your computer inventory, then Windows 8 is designed for you.
If your small business uses traditional desktop computers, the price of updating to Windows 8 may be too high. Microsoft isn't known for getting things right the first time, and most of us remember Windows Vista as an abject failure. The proven performance of Windows 7 versus the untested promise of Windows 8 provides ample reason to go with Windows 7.
Finally, businesses that focus on traditional programs such as accounting, word processors, spreadsheets, graphics, and in-house software and those using SaaS software whose prime focus is on productivity and speed are unlikely to get a significant benefit from Windows 8.
Helen Bradley is a respected international journalist writing regularly for small business and computer publications in the USA, Canada, South Africa, UK and Australia. You can learn more about her at her Web site, HelenBradley.com
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