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As Microsoft continues to tweak Windows to calm desktop users, it's a good time for small and midsize businesses (SMBs) to ask what they need from the new operating system.

Kevin Casey

July 1, 2013

6 Min Read

8 Free, Must-Have Windows 8 Apps

8 Free, Must-Have Windows 8 Apps


8 Free, Must-Have Windows 8 Apps(click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Microsoft is undergoing a great deal of change, a "journey," in its own words. In the process, it's wagering mightily on mobility as the future of computing.

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. 2. Is Your IT Team On Board?

If you like what you see in Windows 8.1, it's important to ask: Do you have the necessary IT skills and resources for a successful upgrade? It's a particularly critical question for the "S" in SMB, according to Forrester analyst David Johnson. "The smaller the organization, the less likely they are to have the skills and tools necessary to do a full migration of both all of their PCs and all of their applications," Johnson said in an email.

In that scenario, there's a good chance that you rely on outside IT help. Even then, though, don't just assume your provider is ready and able to deploy Windows 8, new touchscreen devices, Windows 8 apps and so on.

"It is a two-step process for SMBs, excluding very small businesses that buy from retail, of moving from operating system to another," Agrawal said. "First, their resellers have to be convinced [of Windows 8's benefits] because they will have to provide support on the new PCs."

3. Will Windows 8.1 Break Stuff You Already Use?

The second step: "SMBs will have to be convinced that Windows 8.1 will not disrupt the functioning of their [existing] accessories, networks, peripherals and applications," Agrawal said. Indeed, compatibility can be a major issue in any OS upgrade -- such headaches are a key reason why some SMBs stick with XP, for example. This gets back to those requisite IT resources: You've got to be able to test, test, and test some more. Otherwise, an upgrade could become an IT disaster.

This could be an easier question to answer if you're heavily invested in cloud applications rather than on-premises infrastructure. Compatibility challenges are often diminished -- or at least outsourced -- for those SMBs.

"Smaller companies -- especially those less than maybe 1,000 people -- can more often move into cloud-based services and other things that make operating system versions less important," Johnson said.

4. What Are Your Alternatives?

There's no rule that says an OS upgrade must be an all-or-nothing proposition. Nor does it always pay off to have the "latest and greatest" version. Do your homework. Test new devices and apps. Take time to make a well-informed decision, especially if you're already on Windows 7. For many SMBs, it doesn't make sense to pay the early adoption tax. Similarly, it doesn't make sense to write off Windows 8 simply because some people don't like it.

As an alternative, consider doing a small deployment for testing, usability and other purposes. Even Microsoft recommends this for companies happy with their Windows 7 environments. Doing so can help answer question three, for starters. "The biggest support issues come into play when the first PC with a new OS is connected to the network," Agrawal said. Beyond compatibility and productivity, this kind of controlled test will better enable you to make the right decision for your business rather than relying on vendor-speak or conventional wisdom. Of course, therein lies the burden of proof for Microsoft and Windows 8.1.

"If the process is not intuitive and smooth, and the experience is not one of delight, the use of Windows 8.1-based PCs will be stalled until it stabilizes and [IT providers] have understood all the potential problem areas associated with working on a new PC," Agrawal said. "If everything fails, the SMBs and the resellers will quickly downgrade to Windows 7 because they know it is a stable OS."

About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey

Contributor

Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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