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05:24 PM

Windows 8: 8 Things SMBs Should Know

Microsoft released the beta version of its much-revamped operating system for PCs and tablets. Here are some key facts for smaller companies.

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Just finished migrating to Windows 7? Then you might view the news that Windows 8 is here--sort of--with mixed emotions.

Microsoft on Wednesday released a preview version of its newest operating system. It's available for public download, provided your PCs meet the minimum technical requirements. The final version is slated to follow in the fall.

What does that mean for small and midsize businesses (SMBs) that run on Windows? Plenty. Whether you're an XP loyalist, a member of the Vista minority, or current with Windows 7, here are eight things you should know now about Windows 8.

1. Hello, Metro. The first change long-time Windows users will notice is that Windows 8, simply put, looks different. That's because it's based on the Metro interface. Say goodbye to traditional icons and hello to "Live Tiles," similar to what Microsoft uses for Windows Phone 7. Those customizable tiles are intended to show real-time data from applications like email, social media, and instant messaging.

2. Mobility, mobility, mobility. That smartphone similarity isn't an accident: Windows 8 represents Microsoft's attempt to catch up to Apple's iOS and Google's Android in the mobile market, especially in the tablet segment. "The primary objective of Windows 8 would not be to defend its share on the PC market but rather to extend the capabilities to the ARM chips and various mobile devices," said Techaisle CEO Anurag Agrawal via email. Agrawal's firm focuses exclusively on SMB technology.

[ Considering Windows 8? Read 8 More Ways Windows 8 Could Be Great. ]

What that means, at least for now, is that Windows 8 is less likely to appeal to SMBs that aren't gaga for touchscreen PCs and tablets. (Or perhaps those that have already fallen in love with the iPad and can't imagine switching platforms.)

3. The mobile apps are coming. Microsoft has already said Windows 8 won't run legacy applications on ARM tablets. That doesn't mean there won't eventually be a ton of mobile apps for Windows 8 devices, though. It's just likely to take a while--up to two or three years, by Agrawal's estimate--for Microsoft to reduce the app gap with Apple and Google.

"Most integrated software vendors (ISVs) who currently develop Windows-based applications will be quick to port their apps to Windows 8-based mobile devices," Agrawal said. "Similarly, developers who have apps for iOS and Android will be unable to resist the huge base of Windows users and will adapt their apps for Windows 8."

4. Microsoft's channel advantage. Microsoft's vast network of ISVs and other channel partners gives it a significant advantage over Apple and Google in the SMB mobile market, according to Agrawal. So while Microsoft certainly has a lot of ground to make up if it hopes to catch Apple, in particular, in the overall tablet market, it could carve out of a niche with SMBs that rely on channel partners for IT acquisitions and support.

5. Less PC-related thumb-twiddling. Windows 8 touts faster boot times and fewer restarts, which should mean fewer PC-related interruptions during the work day. The payoff could be particularly noticeable for SMBs--and the IT pros that support them--that are hanging on to aging hardware and software in anticipation of Windows 8's full release. Given Windows 8's mobility focus, it offers another potential improvement from legacy versions--staying unplugged for longer. "Battery life will be an important consideration for SMBs," Agrawal said.

6. A good fit for ultrabooks? Windows 8's tablet-esque UI could make it a logical match for SMBs with plans to add Windows-based ultrabooks to their tech portfolio. Techaisle projects 20% of PCs purchased by SMBs this year will be ultrabooks, provided prices drop quickly. In fact, Agrawal notes that SMBs listed the launch of Windows 8 as one of their top reasons for kicking the tires on the slimmed-down form factor.

7. Windows 7 will be around a while. If you just finished or are in the midst of a Windows 7 migration, don't fret: Mainstream support isn't set to end until 2015, with extended support running through 2020. You're covered for a while. If you're still using XP, on the other hand, it's time to get cracking on your upgrade plan--support runs out in 2014.

8. Integrated cloud backup. In his recent write-up of ways Windows 8 could be great, InformationWeek's Paul McDougall highlighted one feature that should be of particular interest to SMBs: SkyDrive integration. SkyDrive is Microsoft's cloud backup and storage service, much like Apple's iCloud and other similar platforms. Windows 8 should make it easier to back up PCs regularly without much muss and fuss--something many SMBs aren't so great at doing today. Microsoft wants to boost adoption of the service, so most Metro apps will be able to sync directly with data stored in SkyDrive. Alongside better backup, Techaisle's Agrawal would like to see stronger security for mobile SMBs.

"SMB users carry around their mobile devices wherever they go and, if the experience of cell phones is any guide, they will lose these mobile devices," Agrawal said. "Microsoft should provide remote location, lockout, and wipe-out capabilities as a standard feature. This will be especially important for security conscious SMB users."

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