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Windows 8: How To Test For SMBs

Take Microsoft's newest OS out for an easy test drive. Here's how, and what to consider when crafting your SMB's Windows strategy.

8 New Windows 8 Tablets
8 New Windows 8 Tablets
(click image for slideshow)
Sometimes if you want something done right, you need to do it yourself.

The adage seems sure to hold true as small and midsize businesses (SMBs) begin to kick the tires on Windows 8, Microsoft's reboot of its omnipresent operating system. SMBs certainly can find answers to plenty of their questions online, but Windows 8 is a major overhaul, not simply an update on the same old familiar OS. Making an informed if-and-when decision requires a little due diligence.

"I think playing with it as soon as possible is a smart thing to do so that it's not an unknown," said Bob Kelly, founder of ITNinja, in an interview. Kelly works as senior product manager at Dell KACE, which owns ITNinja (formerly known as AppDeploy).

Testing a new operating system before its full release--Windows 8 won't be generally available until October--sounds technical and perhaps downright tough, which could scare off SMBs with limited IT resources. It shouldn't, according to Kelly: "It's something that's so simple that anybody could do it, but if you think about it--'set up a new virtual environment and check out a new operating system'--that sounds really difficult. It's not."

[ Read Straight To Windows 8? 7 Tips For SMBs. ]

To prove his claim, Kelly recently made an online video demonstrating how to take Windows 8 out for a test drive on your current computer. (Kelly ran his demo on a Mac, but the same instructions translate to Windows PCs without much fuss.) Indeed, it's quite easy--not much more complicated than downloading and installing any other sizable application. Doing so won't cost you a dime, aside from a bit of installation time and, of course, time spent tinkering with Windows 8.

Watch the video for the full, fast tutorial. But the basic steps involve running the .iso file for the Windows 8 preview release--you can download it here--in a virtual environment. SMBs can do so with an existing virtualization platform if they have one, such as VMware or Citrix. If not, Kelly used the open source VirtualBox application for his demo, which perfectly suits the testing task, and better yet is perfectly free. You'll also need a Windows Live account if you don't already have one--again, it's free and easy to get one if you don't.

Once you're up and running, you've got your own little Windows 8 sandbox to play in. Kelly reminds testers that it's indeed a preview release, so there likely will be some changes before it ships. But the real question is: What the heck are you looking at?

Kelly advised SMBs to focus on two key issues while testing. The foremost priority in his view is to consider application compatibility. That's because Windows 8's Metro interface marks a significant break from prior versions, in large part because it's Microsoft's big bet on mobility.

"[Metro] is very consumer and not very business," Kelly said. "While I wouldn't be surprised to see business tools developed in the Metro interface, it's almost like a separate operating system." He sees a parallel here with the Apple ecosystem and application differences across Macs, iPads, and iPhones--something Windows devotees haven't had to think too much about in the past, especially given the previous absence of Windows-based tablets. Metro applications might not pack the same punch as those developed for the traditional desktop, particularly given the mobile consumer orientation. In Kelly's view, that's something business users already experience with Apple iOS apps. "There are some out there with business use in mind, but just not with the same interactivity and productivity as the standard desktop," Kelly said.

Bottom line: "[Windows 8] is just as capable--you can still run big applications that Windows 7 would support. But it really feels like you're being almost driven away from that," Kelly said. "What will ultimately happen is that you'll end up with that Metro interface with a lot of simple applications like weather, stocks, and consumer-type things. And then it basically replaces the Start menu, so you'll have a tile for Microsoft Vizio [for example], and when you click that it will take you out of that interface and into the desktop mode where you can use the application normally."

The second testing priority is the new user interface itself. "As a SMB I'd be concerned with what happened to the desktop everyone is familiar with," Kelly said. "The Metro interface is kind of a Start menu on steroids," he added, noting that SMBs that view Metro as a Start menu replacement rather than an interface replacement might have a smoother transition. Depending on your end users, that change could be disruptive, at least temporarily.

"Just changing the desktop wallpaper will upset some people, so if you're changing the Start menu from that familiar popup in the left corner to these big scrolling active tiles, you'll almost certainly have to spend a lot of time and money around training and user awareness to get people ready for such a big change," Kelly said. An upgrade from XP to Windows 7 might present similar challenges with end users, but those are likely to be more pronounced with Windows 8. "It's maybe a little more in-your-face with this one because it's such a drastic change."

SMBs have saved big buying software on a subscription model. The new, all-digital Cloud Beyond SaaS issue of InformationWeek SMB shows how to determine if infrastructure services can pay off, too. Also in this issue: One startup's experience with infrastructure-as-a-service shows how the numbers stack up for IaaS vs. internal IT. (Free registration required.)

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