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TECHNOLOGY

Windows 8: Jump or wait?

Microsoft's new operating system is touch and go.

By J. Carlton Collins, CPA
November 2012

Windows 8With the Oct. 26 release of Windows 8, Microsoft unveiled a new look and new direction for the operating system that runs 92% of desktop computers worldwide. But Windows 8 isn’t about desktop dominance. It’s about Microsoft seeking to gain a foothold in the mobile market, where Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems rule.

Why should CPAs care about Microsoft’s mobile motives? Because understanding the company’s strategy illuminates the path CPAs and their organizations should follow in determining whether to switch to Windows 8.

Windows 8 features a tile-based, touchscreen-optimized interface that Microsoft has designed to be used across the board on desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and a slew of new Ultrabooks. Windows 8 also uses the cloud to synchronize devices so that an update on a user’s PC also will show up on the user’s tablet and smartphone, provided they are running on the latest Windows version.

This connectivity between computers and mobile devices means that in addition to deciding whether to upgrade from Windows 7, Vista, or XP to Windows 8, CPAs should also weigh the pros and cons of switching to the newest Windows OS on their mobile devices—or possibly even consolidating from multiple devices to a Windows 8-powered Ultrabook (see sidebar, “The Mobile Effect,” below).

This article offers a quick tour of Windows 8, examines its most notable new features, and offers advice on whether to embrace, eschew, or take a wait-and-see approach with the new operating system.   
 
A QUICK TOUR OF WINDOWS 8

Windows 8 features a new menu structure and a Start screen with a colorful array of tiles designed to optimize the touchscreen experience on mobile devices. Much has been made of the radically different user interface, but users of Windows 8 on desktop and laptop computers are not limited to only the tile-based screen. In a clever move, Windows 8 allows users to toggle between a classic desktop Start screen and the newer Start screen (see Exhibit 1). The classic Start screen provides a bit of a comfort zone for those upgrading from previous versions of Windows, but it’s the new “Modern” user interface (or Modern UI), formerly called Metro, that warrants a closer look. 

 

The Modern UI responds to finger gestures on a touchscreen-enabled monitor or mouse clicks and keyboard commands. The touchscreen interaction is similar to that of an Apple iPad. The new Start screen is customizable. You can resize, rearrange, and regroup the tiles to display the desired applications and shortcuts.

The use of the tile-based interface across desktops, laptops, Ultrabooks, tablets, and smartphones means that once you have mastered the interface on one platform, you should be able to navigate the system on all platforms. But mastering the new system does take some time and effort. Here are some tips to shorten the learning curve.

Right-clicking on the Modern UI Start screen and clicking All Apps provides access to installed apps, administrative tools, accessories, and Windows settings, as shown in Exhibit 2. (To perform this procedure on a touchscreen monitor, swipe the screen from the bottom up to display the Apps Bar, then touch the All Apps icon.)

For quick access to essential functions, Windows 8 provides a universal toolbar called the Charm Bar (pictured below), which appears when you:

  • Mouse over the top- or bottom-right corners of the screen;
  • Press the Windows key+C; or
  • On a touchscreen, swipe in from the right side of the screen.

 

 


The Charm Bar offers one-click access to five important tools:

1. Search finds files and folders of all types. This search tool is faster than the Windows 7 search tool—fast enough, in fact, that it might be the best way to access applications, documents, system settings, and whatever else you usually find through the Start menu or Control Panel in previous versions of Windows. 

2. Share helps you send or publish data from within your applications to recipients, the web, or social media websites. For example, Share enables you to send data from your current application (such as Word or Excel) via an email attachment, or to upload data to your Microsoft SkyDrive and share the link.

3. Start launches the Modern UI Start screen.

4. Devices lets you control the equipment connected to your computer or mobile device. For example, you would use this tool to duplicate the screen display on a projector or television screen.

5. Settings provides an interface where you can connect wirelessly, customize Start screen tiles, power off the computer, adjust the desktop background, add users, manage notifications, manage search settings, adjust privacy settings, sync devices, manage network settings, update Windows, and more.

Advanced users will appreciate the Power User menu (pictured below), which is accessed by right-clicking the lower-left corner of the Start screen, or by pressing the Windows key+X. This menu provides access to Windows 8’s more advanced settings and controls, such as Command Prompt, System, and the Run box.

 

The new menus, tiles, and charms described above provide multiple options for accessing applications, settings, and controls from either user interface. The process is not the most intuitive, but the list of keyboard shortcuts in Exhibit 3 can save you some time and trouble.

Reaction to Windows 8 has been mixed, in large part because Microsoft eliminated the classic Start button and Program file menus from both desktops in the beta version. At the time of this writing, it appeared unlikely that Microsoft would restore the Start button to the final version of Windows 8, but a number of third-party providers have announced plans to supply a utility that restores the Start button.

Click here to access an expanded list of Windows 8 keyboard shortcuts and touchscreen swipe commands.

UPGRADE ANALYSIS

For the most part, Windows 8 is Windows 7 with a fresh face, touchscreen capabilities, and a few other upgrades (see sidebar, “15 New Features in Windows 8,” below). Applications that worked on Windows 7, most notably Microsoft Office, should continue to work on Windows 8-powered desktops and laptops. 

Before upgrading to Windows 8, remember that an operating system installation is much more involved than, say, moving from Office 2007 to Office 2010. Consider the following:

  • While Windows 8 installs fairly easily over older versions of Windows, users can expect to devote several hours to fine-tuning settings and learning the system’s menus, features, and functionality.
  • Migrating to Windows 8 is a one-way operation. Users who upgrade and then decide to revert to the previous operating system will need to restore a complete backup—a time-consuming and arduous process.
  • The Windows 8 menu structure and tile-based Start screen are the biggest changes to the Windows user interface since Windows 95 introduced the Start menu. Even with the classic desktop option, there are more than enough differences between Windows 8 and earlier Windows versions that it will take a while to become comfortable with the new operating system.
  • Although the core of Windows 8 is essentially the tried and proven Windows 7 operating system, the new Modern interface is largely unproven, and users usually are well-advised to shy away from unproven products.


To encourage Windows users to make the leap to Windows 8, Microsoft is offering special, low pricing for upgrades through Jan. 31, 2013. Users running Windows 7-, XP-, or Vista-powered PCs purchased before June 2, 2012, can download and install Windows 8 Pro for $39.99, while users who buy an eligible Windows 7 PC between June 2, 2012, and Jan. 31, 2013, can upgrade for $14.99. After that, the upgrade price is expected to rise to $199.

The decision to upgrade a computer to Windows 8 should be heavily influenced by which version of Windows you currently use.

  • If you are running Windows 7, the primary benefits of a Windows 8 upgrade would include faster boot-up times and some security enhancements.
  • If you are running Windows XP, Windows 8 offers numerous security and performance improvements, such as the speedier, indexed searching first introduced in Windows Vista. In addition, today’s typical desktop computer has a 64-bit motherboard, approximately 8 gigabytes of RAM and multiple CPUs. Because Windows XP implementations are 32-bit and support only 4 GBs of RAM and just one core CPU, CPAs using this platform may be underutilizing the full power of their computers.
  • If you are running Windows Vista, Windows 8 includes the dozens of small but critical improvements Microsoft added to Windows 7.


Windows 8 might prove to be a giant step forward for Microsoft, but CPAs running Windows 7 might be better off holding back on any upgrades until the new system proves reliable in widespread use. For CPAs running XP or Vista, Windows 8 (or Windows 7 for that matter) offers significant security, support, and performance advantages, but a decision on whether to upgrade also should include consideration of your organization’s mobile and cloud technology strategy.   

Microsoft clearly is emphasizing cloud and mobile in its strategy and not just with Windows 8. Office 2013, rumored to be released within days or weeks of Windows 8, has been redesigned to run on the revamped operating system, with a similar look and feel, including a new Start screen and cloud, touchscreen, and device-centric capabilities. Microsoft also is steering customers toward a cloud-accessed version under the Office 365 brand. Pricing for the small business version of Office 365 will be $149.99 a year for as many as five PCs or Macs. In addition, Microsoft has eliminated multilicense packs for Office 2013 and will charge $220 per license for the Home & Business version and $400 per license for the Professional version.

CONCLUSION

Given the reliance on Windows-powered computers and applications in the accounting profession, CPAs and their organizations have little choice but to look into Windows 8. More important, CPAs need to determine how they plan to use mobile and cloud-based technologies. .

With so many factors to consider, a wait-and-see approach may be the best option for most CPAs, especially Windows 7 users. As Windows 8 use grows more prevalent and Office 2013 becomes widely available, both as a traditional download and through the cloud-based Office 365 subscription service, CPAs will have a better understanding of how the operating system and its key applications perform. At that point, the data should be in place to determine whether a jump to Windows 8 is justified.


The Mobile Effect

Windows 8 is designed to strengthen Microsoft’s place in the mobile market and also better leverage the power of anywhere, anytime access to applications, data, and systems made possible by cloud computing.

On the tablet and smartphone fronts, it’s too early to tell how new Windows-powered devices such as the Microsoft Surface tablet or Windows Phone 8 (both scheduled for release within days of Windows 8) will perform in comparison to proven competitors such as the iPhone, iPad, and a host of Android-powered devices.

The tablet battlefield will play a pivotal part in Microsoft’s battle for mobile market share. Led by the iPad, tablets have proved to be great devices for consuming content but not for creating it, at least not in heavy amounts. With the Surface, which features an integrated kickstand and a pressure-sensitive cover that doubles as a keyboard and trackpad, Microsoft is attempting to integrate the content-creation capacity of laptops with the convenience of tablets. The kickstand allows users to work on the Surface without having to hold it in one hand or work on a flat surface.

The “X” factor in the Windows 8 decision process could be the Ultrabook, which is thinner and lighter than a laptop but more powerful than a tablet. The term Ultrabook was coined by Intel, which provides the chips for all products bearing the Ultrabook name. Apple has a similar product called the MacBook Air, but that device is not touchscreen-enabled. With the release of Windows 8, at least 40 new touch-enabled Ultrabooks are due to hit the market by the end of the year.


15 New Features in Windows 8

In addition to the new touchscreen user interface, Microsoft has added some noteworthy features to Windows 8; 15 of them are summarized below.

1. Faster boot-up. Windows 8 boots up in about 5 to 15 seconds, depending on the performance of your computer.

2. Tap and Do. With Tap and Do functionality, Windows 8 allows you to tap two devices together to create a connection between them. Using Near Field Communication (NFC), Tap and Do creates a device partnership automatically, so you no longer need to enter PINs or undertake complicated discovery and setup procedures to connect devices.  

3. Windows To Go. This interesting feature replicates your entire computer installation on a 32-gigabyte (or larger) USB thumb drive so you can carry your entire computer system in your pocket. Later, when you arrive at your destination, plug the USB drive into a different computer and boot up to access your complete system with all of your applications, settings, and data files. This feature opens the door to new workspace scenarios in which employees might share an empty computer with no software installed.

Note: Windows 8 also supports USB 3.0, which provides data speeds up to 5 Gbit/second (compared with just a half gigabits per second for USB 2.0).

4. Installed apps. Windows 8 includes the following basic apps: Microsoft Mail, Calendar, SkyDrive, Photos, People, Messaging, Video, and Music.

5. SkyDrive. Windows 8 includes a SkyDrive account (starting at 25 GBs), and the installation routine automatically connects the Windows 8 device to the cloud so you are instantly ready to share apps and data across all of your computers and devices, and with other users to whom you grant share permissions.

6. Wireless sensing. Windows 8 senses compatible wireless routers, scanners, printers, televisions, speakers, etc., and sets them up automatically. This works on all Windows 8 devices, which means, for example, that Windows Phone 8 users can send their display to a television or print to a printer.

7. Longer battery life. Windows 8 provides new power options that allow you to consume less energy, thereby saving on electricity and increasing battery life. At least one study suggested Windows 8 provides up to 12% energy savings when used on newer energy-efficient computers, and higher energy savings can be expected when running Windows 8 on older, less energy-efficient computers.

8. Improved Wi-Fi. Windows 8 provides Wi-Fi roaming, which enables your traveling device to switch from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another without losing the internet connection, similar to how a cellphone switches cell towers as you travel. For example, if an employee is walking through an office while using her smartphone to connect to the internet via the company’s Wi-Fi router and she begins to walk out of range of that Wi-Fi router, as the signal grows weaker Windows 8 will automatically reconnect to the next Wi-Fi router with a stronger signal so the internet connection remains unbroken.

9. Windows Store. Similar to Apple’s App Store, the Windows Store is a market for downloading and installing apps to your computers or devices, both for free or for a fee. This online store is the primary repository for all operating system updates, system upgrades, apps, and other downloadables.

10. File History. This new feature saves copies of your files as you work and lets you retrieve previous versions in the event your current file is lost or damaged. By default, File History saves backup versions every hour (these backups are limited to 5% of your total hard drive). These default parameters are fully adjustable.

11. Picture password. Because typing a password on smaller touchscreen devices can be tedious, Windows 8 provides optional picture, gesture, and mouse movement passwords for easier logins. For example, to use the picture password feature, select a picture from your own picture gallery, such as a picture of your family’s dog. Then, using your finger, you might draw a circle around your pet’s face, a circle around the dog’s tail, and then a line from the dog’s tail to his front leg. This gesture combination becomes the password you would use to log in to Windows 8.

12. Live syncing. Windows 8 enables your personalized settings to follow from one device to another. This means the apps you purchase and install on one device can automatically appear on other devices, along with your default settings.

13. Windows Reader. This built-in app makes reading online easier and allows you to open PDF files, copy and paste paragraphs, and use your tablet’s stylus to edit PDF documents.

14. Storage spaces. This technical improvement is based on RAID (redundant array of independent disks) technology in which your data is distributed across multiple drives, along with an error-checking method used to recover data in the event of drive failure.

15. Improved security. Windows 8 provides built-in early launch anti-malware (ELAM), which prevents unauthorized operating systems from loading and helps prevent boot loader attacks. This security feature is designed to prevent attackers from hijacking your computer by booting up an alternative operating system. In such an attack, your computer would boot using, for example, a Linux OS, but your screen would show a display such as “System Updates Taking Place: Do Not Turn Off.” The malware would then boot up the correct operating system, such as Windows 7, leaving the user unaware that hackers have accessed the computer.

 

Click here to access an expanded list of Windows 8 keyboard shortcuts and touchscreen swipe commands.



EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Windows 8 features a touchscreen-enabled user interface designed to provide a uniform experience on desktop computers, laptops, Ultrabooks, tablets, and smartphones. Microsoft’s goal is that users who learn Windows 8 on one platform will know how to use the operating system on all their computing devices. 

Windows 8 accommodates both touchscreen functionality and control by a keyboard and mouse.

Windows 8 users can toggle between two Start screens—a classic desktop and a new “Modern UI” characterized by blocks of colorful tiles designed to optimize touchscreen interaction.

Applications that work on Windows 7 should continue to work on Windows 8.

The advantages of Windows 8 include faster boot-up times, longer battery life, at least one significant security upgrade, and cloud-based live syncing, which means that a change made on one of a user’s Windows 8 devices automatically updates on all of them.

The drawbacks of Windows 8 include the amount of time required to fine-tune the settings in the upgrade installation, the learning curve associated with a new menu structure and Start screen, and the uncertainty of switching to a new and largely unproven user interface.

CPAs considering whether to upgrade or switch to Windows 8 should consider several factors, including which version of Windows they currently use and how mobile devices and cloud computing fit into their technology-utilization strategy.

CPAs, especially those running Windows 7, might be well-advised to take a wait-and-see approach with Windows 8, at least until the system has been in use long enough for its performance to be thoroughly assessed. CPAs should see how Windows 8 fares on all platforms—from desktop computers to the new Windows Phone 8.

J. Carlton Collins (carlton@asaresearch.com) is a technology and accounting systems consultant and a JofA contributing editor.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at jdrew@aicpa.org or 919-402-4056.



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