On one hand, that makes perfect sense. Smartphones are everywhere, tablets are popular, and we're more connected than ever before. On the other hand, traditional PCs are still integral tools for countless businesses -- even if PC sales figures don't tell the kind of story that attracts growth fund managers on Wall Street. The first hack at Windows 8, however, came up short from a desktop usability standpoint.
Microsoft appears to get that. The official Windows 8.1 preview, released at the Build developer's conference, was a sign that the company is listening. Just because mobility is massive doesn't mean everyone has suddenly stopped using traditional computers. If you absolutely loathe Windows 8, the next release probably won't convert you.
Microsoft has pushed its chips into the middle of the table. In fact, Microsoft itself has adopted the gambling metaphor, describing the future direction of Windows as "our bet that the PC industry is going through a shift that is driven by mobility." It's not going to do an about-face on Windows 8's Modern UI and its emphasis on touch and apps, among other features. But Windows 8.1 is in effect a compromise with PC users, a refined blend, in CEO Steve Ballmer's terms.
[ What does Windows 8.1 offer enterprises? Read Windows 8.1: 10 Surprise Benefits. ]
"The return of the Start button along with booting straight to the desktop ensures that SMBs breathe a sigh of relief," said Techaisle analyst Anurag Agrawal in an email to InformationWeek. Agrawal's firm focuses on SMB technology use. "Does it motivate them to rush [out and] begin replacing their older PCs? Not yet."
It is, however, a good time for SMBs to think about what their own computing future looks like, especially if they've been putting off a tech refresh for several years. Here are four questions to consider in light of the various confirmations and clarifications coming out of Build about Windows 8.1, Microsoft's new rapid-release cycle, and other areas.
1. What's Your Rush?
As Agrawal noted, while Windows 8.1 includes some key improvements for PC users, that doesn't mean it's likely to light PC sales on fire. That's for good reason, too: There's not necessarily any need to rush into Windows 8.x. As Microsoft's so-called journey continues, there will likely be some bumps in the road.
"We will continue to see a wait-and-watch from the SMBs," Agrawal said. "Many of the SMBs that are buying new PCs which come [preinstalled] with Windows 8, they are downgrading to Windows 7."
The Start button and other updates might be welcome changes, but if you were hoping Windows 8.1 would look and function exactly like exactly Windows 7, well, you probably just want Windows 7. Agrawal expects that downgrade trend to decrease over time once Windows 8.1 hits the market. That said, SMBs that are already on Windows 7 (or in the midst of a migration) have some time to figure out their next move -- Microsoft support for the OS runs through January 2020.
There is one subset of SMBs that needs to act faster: Offices still toiling on XP. Microsoft has taken pains to remind SMBs and other users that XP support ends in April 2014. That doesn't mean the OS will stop working, but it does increase security and other IT risks. It also likely means you're working on older hardware, which can cause performance and support headaches.