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 fall, 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 customizations. 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.