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Let's cut through the commotion to consider four potential upsides Windows 8 offers SMBs and their employees. Some of these--numbers one and four in particular--emphasize potential. Factors such as the nascent menu of Windows 8 apps will have a significant bearing on whether these advantages become reality. Other potential benefits point to new features that users may welcome with open arms.
1. A Legitimate iPad Alternative.
Businesses that have embraced tablets to date have really had only once choice: Apple's iPad.
OK, that's not actually true; there are a host of Android-based devices out there. But none have anywhere near the traction of the iPad, which will account for more than 62% of tablet shipments in 2012, according to IDC. The research firm, for one, doesn't expect Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets to unseat iPad from its throne, but it does predict Windows will grow from just 4% of the tablet segment this year to 11% in 2016. Windows 8 might give SMBs a viable long-term alternative to iPad.
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A key variable here will be the apps. If Windows-based tablets can offer a robust set of business apps, including purpose-built tools for specific industries, then SMBs might have real reason to pass on the more popular iPad. Top-notch business apps would also offer a clear advantage over the current state of Android tablet apps. There's reason to think those apps are coming: They represent a significant new market for Microsoft's large ecosystem of integrated software vendors (ISVs) and similar partners, many of whom counts SMBs as their primary customer base.
2. Under-the-Hood Improvements.
The most immediately noticeable change in Windows 8 is the updated look-and-feel, particularly the touch-centric, tiles-based "Modern UI" (formerly known as Metro). But pop the hood and you'll find the new OS is no superficial makeover.
"Windows 8 has a lot of great features that have nothing to do with Metro," reader Erik notes in an email. Erik's a Windows guy; he half-jokes that he's old enough to have used DOS-4, Windows 2/386, and Windows 95 when it was still code-named Chicago. Among the Windows 8 features Erik's happy about: "Performance improvements, kernel improvements (better SSD, multi-core, etc.), Client Hyper-V (huge for anyone who uses virtual machines on their desktop a lot; it's like getting VMware for free), improvements to the UI in areas like the Task Manager and File Copy, Storage Spaces (I love this feature, it's like my beloved Windows Home Server v1), better multi-monitor support (individual wallpapers and mirrored taskbar are my favorites), [and] File History."
Other InformationWeek readers have reported Windows 8 runs faster than previous versions, not just at startup but overall. There are security improvements, too. BitLocker hard drive encryption, for example, is included with Windows 8 Professional edition, which might be the version of choice for many SMBs. (BitLocker is available only with Ultimate and Enterprise editions of Windows 7.)
3. Better Backup and Sync.
Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud backup service is about to get its turn in the spotlight, thanks to an integrated Windows 8 app. The app means users will be able to access, modify, and save files and other data both locally and to SkyDrive without much fuss. That's a good thing for the mobile workforce, virtual offices, and SMBs that are prone to put off backup like it's a trip to the dentist. If everything is backed up and synced automatically, there's not much excuse for data loss or inaccessibility.
The integration goes beyond file backup. It includes user settings and data such as browser history, too, so that they're synced and appear automatically across all hardware. A user with three devices linked to a SkyDrive account, for example, can make a change to a personalization setting on one and see it update automatically on the other two. In an interview, Jay Paulus, Microsoft's product marketing director for Windows and SMB, touted "how connected this stuff is, and how easy it's going to be to go from device to device and have your whole world be connected."
4. A Bridge Between Home and Office?
In a recent interview, Forrester business CTO Steve Peltzman noted that a recent Forrester survey found more than half of corporate employees think they have better tech at home than at work. "The home and work divide definitely screams to be closed," Peltzman said.
Microsoft seems to get that. "We took that [Windows] foundation and added a whole lot of fun and easy on top of it," Paulus said. A big part of that, Paulus added, will be a single user experience across the hardware spectrum.
"Anything from all-in-ones to notebooks to big desktops to tablets and convertibles--the whole idea that you've got the same experience across all these devices winds up being a big deal," Paulus said. "It just makes everything easier when it's all the same."
Indeed, a potential upside here is the opportunity to do everything on a single platform. It's not really a single OS, as I've been calling it for the sake of convenience--Windows 8, Windows RT, and Window Phone 8 are separate but related versions. Let's call it the Windows 8 family. Apple might deliver a version of that single-platform experience, but only to a small subset of SMBs--just 16%, according to Techaisle, use Macs or Linux-based PCs. That slice shrinks in half when accounting for SMBs worldwide.
Because Microsoft has lagged behind Apple and Google on the mobile front, many Windows shops have taken a hybrid approach--whether corporate-sponsored or BYOD--that involves a mix of devices, OSes, and applications. SMB professionals, especially those owners and executives who don't make much distinction between their work and personal lives, might welcome the opportunity to consolidate on a single platform. Microsoft is certainly hoping so.
"SMB folks wear a lot of hats. One day they're the treasurer, one day they're the business development guy, the next day they're the sales guy, [and] in the evening they're going home and they're the soccer coach," Paulus said. "Having one device that fits into all those aspects of your life and can do all those tasks is a big deal."
Upgrading isn't the easy decision that Win 7 was. We take a close look at Server 2012, changes to mobility and security, and more in the new Here Comes Windows 8 issue of InformationWeek. Also in this issue: Why you should have the difficult conversations about the value of OS and PC upgrades before discussing Windows 8. (Free registration required.)