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Woe is Windows 8: Its post-launch thunder has been stolen by the very company that made it. Steven Sinofsky, the executive in charge of Windows, abruptly left the company. As tends to happen with companies of Mircosoft's size and stature, that has spawned plenty of hand-wringing and speculation about what that might mean for the Windows franchise and other product lines.
There are surely some minor kinks to work out (and maybe some major ones). But amidst the corporate hullabaloo in Redmond and the possibility of more changes to come, small and midsize businesses (SMBs) still have a new OS to consider, particularly if they've got technology refresh plans on the 2013 docket.
Windows 8 adds a significant new variable to the "if, when, what, why" equation that results in an OS upgrade decision. Plenty of SMBs are either in the middle of or have recently completed a Windows 7 move. And then there are the many organizations still running XP who now face a choice between Windows 7 or making the leap to Windows 8. The latter -- which means skipping two versions of Windows -- is certainly possible, though perhaps not for the faint of heart. But even if you've already made up your mind to stick with Windows 7, it would be short-sighted to pretend Windows 8 doesn't exist.
A forward-OS strategy takes into account not just next year but the next 10 (or more). Windows 8 won't be the final time Microsoft reboots its ubiquitous software. Time flies when you're talking technology; Windows 9 (or whatever name it will go by) will no doubt be upon us before you can spell obsolescence. Some industry people will even tell you to expect new Windows releases more frequently in the future.
Let's not forget the fact of consumerization. Even organizations that pass on Windows 8 -- and there will be lots of them -- will almost certainly still see Windows 8 in their offices and on their networks. Microsoft's consumer-focused advertising to date certainly seems to be betting on that. (Smart SMBs that embrace BYOD in managed fashion might consider using their policy as a strategic, low-cost way to test Windows 8 in business environments.)
In the Windows 7 versus Windows 8 debate, the latter is generally considered the riskier move. Windows 7 is battle-tested and generally well-regarded (unlike its predecessor, Vista), making it the safe pick. Windows 8 is brand-new for everyone, aside from folks who have been testing it from day one in pre-release versions. New can be exciting. New can also mean "unknown," which some IT pros and other lines of business find anything but exciting.
The price of making the safe pick often comes with forgoing the upside in the riskier option, though. There are without a doubt upsides in Windows 8. For starters, Windows shops finally have legitimate tablet options. Apple's iPad might continue to dominate for the foreseeable future, but it's no longer the only game in town. Far from it, in fact.
Then there's the fact that touch-obsessed users can now swipe their way through the traditional desktop or laptop experience -- something that's not possible on Macs, the primary alternative to Windows-based PCs.
The new Windows Store (which is exclusive to Windows 8 users) also creates vast possibilities for business. It has a long way to go before it's in a league with the apps marketplaces offered by Apple and Google. But there's a lot of promise for SMBs there, especially given the historical foothold Windows has enjoyed in corporate environments.
SMBs that take the Windows 8 plunge will do so for a wide variety of reasons, but likely with a unifying theme: The risks are outweighed by the rewards. In fact, we've come up with eight rewards, to be exact. Let's look at these key reasons why SMBs and other organizations might find Windows 8 more appealing than its predecessors.
SMBs everywhere have seized upon the ability to work whenever and wherever they want. But Windows shops have had limited options for true mobility in the past. The lack of a viable Windows tablet, in particular, meant using iPads or Android devices. The Windows 8 family -- Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows 8 Phone -- and the hardware that runs on it creates the opportunity for mobile SMBs to standardize on a single platform. What's more, that platform was visibly designed with mobile users in mind.
Windows 8 offers a number of security improvements, but the most appealing for SMBs might be BitLocker. BitLocker's hard-drive encryption isn't new, but Windows 8 makes it more accessible for SMBs. That's because it's now included with Windows 8 Professional, the entry-level business edition. (BitLocker was limited to Ultimate and Enterprise editions in Vista and Windows 7.) That's particularly useful for the smaller companies that are unlikely to deploy the enterprise version of Windows. In short, BitLocker enables users to encrypt all of the data stored on the hard drive, reducing the risks associated with losing a business laptop or other hardware. BitLocker To Go offers similar protection for USB drives and other removable storage media.
Windows 8 wholly embraces the modern app paradigm made popular by Apple and Google. Sure, "app" is just a hipper way of saying "application," and Windows has always had those. But face it, most users now associate the word "app" with mobile devices and the corresponding ability to instantly download and run a wide range of software. Windows 8 and the new Windows Store will no doubt stock the games and other fun stuff favored by consumers, but it also has the chance to apply the app-centric mindset to real business tools. That includes services with crossover appeal such as Skype for Windows 8, as well as business-specific platforms like Lync and Sharepoint (which will have its own app ecosystem for Sharepoint 2013).
Windows 8 enables significant, always-on integration of those aforementioned apps and their data. Exhibit A: The live tiles concept behind Windows 8's Modern UI, formerly known as Metro. An example I return to again and again is integration with the SkyDrive cloud backup application. This will become even more apparent with the release of Office 2013 (pictured), which will include SkyDrive backup as a default setting. When you want users to do something, make it easy; countless surveys say SMBs haven't been particularly good at backing up their data. The devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy serves as a reminder of why poor backup practices can be a huge problem.
Windows 8's user interface changes may have garnered the most attention, but Microsoft didn't just slap a new coat of paint on its flagship. Backend improvements include improved dual-monitor support -- a feature at least a couple of InformationWeek readers have welcomed in the comments section of previous Windows 8 coverage -- and Storage Spaces. Perhaps the most notable for SMBs is speed -- especially if you're toiling on geriatric PCs running Windows XP that take 10 minutes just to open a browser window. Windows 8 touts faster boot times. Indeed, InformationWeek's Paul McDougall reported the Dell XPS 12 tablet boots from a completely off state in about 8 seconds. Readers have also noted their overall Windows 8 experience has been fast. The speed factor is a strong draw for SMBs slogging on slow machines after several years (or more) of postponed tech refreshes.
I've previously laid out why the touchscreen PC isn't grabbing me, but it would be narrow-minded (and a tad egomaniacal) to think touch doesn't hold appeal for other businesses. In fact, I can see plenty use cases: reception and other front-office roles, sales, event management, medical offices, retail stores and many others. Touch has already become second nature for many as a result of tablets and smartphones, but Windows 8 could popularize touch on PC form factors. (There's no such thing as a touchscreen Mac, after all.)
When it comes to hardware, Windows-based SMBs -- which means most of them -- have had some pretty plain vanilla choices when it comes to form factors. Would you like that in a desktop or laptop? OK, it's not that straightforward -- there was such a thing as Windows Phone before now, and there are ultrabooks that run Windows 7. (And remember netbooks?) But that's kind of what it has felt like if you're a Windows guy or gal. Windows 8 ushers in a lot more choice -- or at least it will once the various OEMs start pumping up production. Ultrabooks, tablets and convertibles join the old-school laptops and desktops -- though even those graybeards can now be had in touch. SMBs will be able to better match an employee's hardware to the employee's actual job functions.
Much of the above points toward a subjective assessment: Microsoft wants to make Windows cool. While features like BitLocker might be hip only for IT and the paranoid set, much of what's new with Windows 8 holds crossover appeal for home and work: sleek hardware, apps, touch and more. Does cool matter? Consider a Forrester finding that more than half of corporate employees think they have better technology at home than at work. It strikes me as likely that self-assessment is based as much on how that tech looks and feels as on what's under the hood. Does cool make money? Not necessarily, but happy and productive employees do.