Upgrades, system migration, support headaches; IT folks are probably dreading the next major Windows rollout. Yet Windows 8, which is scheduled to move to the beta stage in late February and will likely launch in the autumn, does offer several compelling new features for both IT and end users.
By far the most talked-about aspect of Windows 8 is the Metro interface. Designed for touchscreen computers and tablets and built to use HTML5 and CSS3, Metro ties into Internet apps like SkyDrive and Flickr. As with Windows Phone 7, you can swipe to navigate through tiles showing live web info like stocks and news as well as more traditional apps.
But Pund-IT analyst Charles King questions whether businesses will really see benefits from Metro, saying it is mainly just a new paint job over the existing Windows interface. "Metro is yet one more interface for employees to learn and get used to," he says. "In the current economic environment, businesses will consider that more of a nuisance than a benefit."
Some features in Windows 8 are of clearer business value, say King and other industry analysts. After spending a few months getting to know the developer preview release, I've scouted out 13 less discussed features and talked to experts to get their take on whom, if anyone, these features will benefit.
No finger-drumming here. In my tests, the preview build of Windows 8 booted in six seconds, an all time record on my decked-out Digital Storm ODE desktop system. The previous boot time on the same machine running Windows 7 was approximately 90 seconds. It's possible that the fast boot is due to the developer preview's slimmer build, which lacks all of the bells and whistles of a full OS, but Microsoft has promised significantly faster boot times in Windows 8, which could make staring at logos on startup screens a thing of the past.
Booting up and resuming from sleep is already fast in Windows 7, says Gartner analyst Michael Silver, but making the boot time even faster is still a benefit. This will be particularly advantageous, Pund-IT's King adds, for technical folks who reboot their computers often, for example after installing apps, or for mobile workers who need to routinely power down a device to save battery life and then boot up quickly.
Verdict: If early speeds carry over to the shipping version, it's a win for everybody.
Reset and Refresh
The past several releases of Windows have included a way to rebuild a computer from scratch and return to the default install, but the steps were a bit more complex than they should have been. Now, Windows 8 introduces quick step-by-step wizards for Reset (go back to default install, lose all data and apps) and Refresh (return all settings to their default for faster and more reliable operation, but keep the data and apps) functions.
While home users will have both functions available on their own computers, businesses can set policies for their PCs so that, say, users can do a Refresh themselves but the Reset function requires an IT admin.
"Reset and Refresh functions could be a real boon for IT staff," says King. "Reset lets administrators easily return PCs to their factory state, stripping out all user data along the way. That would be great when you have to reconfigure or decommission systems. Refresh allows users to quickly restore an ailing PC without removing or damaging any of their data or customisations. Easy to imagine multiple scenarios where this could benefit businesses."
Verdict: These easy-to-use features will help end users troubleshoot their own computers, a boon for individuals as well as IT support staffers.
Windows to Go
As we all get more mobile, it's tempting to try to leave our work computer, whether it's a desktop or laptop, behind. But it's often hard to duplicate what's on that computer, including the apps and settings we use every day. The cloud makes it possible to store data or use apps on the web, but some organisations are hesitant to store any company data on the Internet. And cloud services won't help if your accounting program is a local install.
Windows to Go should help address that problem. The idea is that IT can load a user's local install of Windows 8 onto a thumb drive, apps and all; the user can then plug it into any other computer to duplicate her work environment. This is an enterprise process: Windows to Go will be an option in Windows Server 8, not a consumer feature.
"Organisations are increasingly wanting user data and settings and applications to be more portable. Aside from increased productivity for the user to travel securely without a PC, it should also help with future Windows migrations and every time the user gets a new PC," says Silver.
King can think of other uses for the feature. "Windows to Go will simplify life for employees at the growing number of firms that don't offer dedicated cubicles or workspaces. An individual could plug his or her Windows to Go USB drive into a random PC and get to work."
He also notes that it could be used by mobile employees or contract workers who have limited access to company networks. "VMware has been offering a similar product called VMware ACE since 2007, so it's about time Redmond got into the act," King says.
Verdict: Mobile workers, and the IT staffers who support them, will find Windows to Go very handy.
The Windows Store
Integrated with Windows 8, the Windows Store will mimic Apple's Mac App Store, making it easy to find, purchase and install Microsoft-approved apps for the OS. Redmond isn't brand-new to the app store model: The Windows Phone Marketplace offers mobile apps for Windows Phone 7. One welcome feature of that store: Many apps and games offer a free trial version.
The Windows Store is not enabled in the Windows 8 developer preview, so I haven't been able to try it out. (Microsoft plans to launch it in February along with the Windows 8 beta.) But the company has shared some details about how it will work. As with the Windows Phone Marketplace, apps will have to be certified by Microsoft to appear in the Windows Store, and developers will be able to offer trial versions of their software.
"Microsoft will manage the store and, theoretically, all applications will be safe and secure," says Gartner's Silver. Licensing will be user-based, he adds, and a single licensed user will be able to download and install the same application to multiple PCs. "However, this may have implications for the enterprise that have not yet been discussed," he notes.
The key to the Windows Store's success will be whether companies of various stripes decide to support it, says King. For example, software developers would need to agree to the restrictions, and businesses would have to be willing to let employees download software from the stores; setting clear policies about how employees can use the store would be a big help here, he says.
Verdict: The convenience and security of a Microsoft app store with free trials and user-based licensing are great for consumers, but businesses should use caution and set clear employee use policies.
The Ribbon interface
A few years back, Microsoft shocked the world by completely overhauling the interface of its popular Office 2007 applications, replacing the familiar menu and toolbar system with something it called the Ribbon, which groups features and tools into separate collections. This controversial change angered many longtime Office users, while others found the new interface more efficient to use once they'd gotten used to it.
Now the Ribbon is making its way into Windows 8. You'll see it in Windows Explorer, where it provides an easy way to check file attributes and sort files. The Ribbon interface pops up in unexpected places, too, such as the new Hyper-V management app. For users who don't like it, the UI can be disabled with one click.
"At this point, Microsoft can call the Ribbon UI a success," says Silver. "Most average users will probably find that the Ribbon helps them with tasks they've been unsure about previously. For power users, most of the skills they have for manipulating files and such will still work."
But King isn't so sure. "Some businesses believe worker productivity suffered from having to learn new commands and processes in Windows 7 and Office 2010," he says. "This feature could actually inhibit businesses migrating to [Windows] 8."
Verdict: Overall, the Ribbon is a plus for home and business users alike, especially since it can be turned off easily.