8 Great Windows 8 Features for Business

On the surface, Windows 8 has what it takes to make business users happy. Microsoft’s new OS offers the touch-friendly interface and responsiveness of the iPad, plus the versatility of the traditional desktop and the ability to run tons of traditional apps.

However, many are predicting a not-so-happy ending for the business community. “Businesses will choose to drag their feet on adopting Windows 8,” said Al Gillen, IDC’s vice president of system software, “for the simple reason that they don’t want to be the ones to find out what problems exist in the product.”

An IDC study confirms Gillen’s sentiments. According to the firm’s research, Windows 8 Pro and Windows 8 Enterprise will make up just 10 percent of the PC market in 2014. That’s a pretty small chunk given Windows 7 Professional and Windows 7 Enterprise accounted for 50 percent of the market in 2011.

But are these low expectations proof that business leaders should avoid Windows 8 altogether, or does it pose a rare opportunity for IT managers to advance to a forward-thinking platform with smart features for enterprise and small business users? These eight Windows 8 features may compel you to move sooner rather than later.

1. Laptop power plus tablet convenience

It’s no secret Windows 8 is designed to rival the Apple iPad and Android tablets. Right now, Windows is nonexistent on tablets, while iOS dominates with 68 percent market share, according to research firm Strategy Analytics. Android-based tablet devices have around 29 percent of the tablet market.

But what isn’t often discussed is the enhanced functionality Windows 8 affords users who want to navigate between a laptop and a tablet — all without switching between two pieces of hardware.

The list of Windows 8 hybrids that transform from a laptop to a finger-ready tablet include systems with detachable keyboards such as the HP Envy x2 and Acer Iconia W510, sliding convertibles such as the Sony VAIO Duo 11 and systems with back-bending displays such as the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga.

Such versatile designs are sure to appeal to job sectors where tablets are popular. According to studies by NPD and Vertic, the financial, health care, education and government industries are increasing their tablet usage, thanks to the need to take quick notes, make presentations on the fly, execute research online and send emails. The Vertic study also shows that converting workflow to a slate interface improves employee response time, increases team decision-making time and quickens resolution of critical issues.

A Windows 8 device puts that performance enhancement into business users’ hands, while simultaneously giving them a device that can easily transition into a laptop for traditional productivity assignments.

2. Office, evolved

As of press time, Microsoft Office 2013 didn’t have an official release date, but we know the new lineup — Microsoft Access, Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher and Word 2013 — will be identically available for both Windows 7 and Windows 8. Via previews, we also know that the new suite includes plenty of touch-friendly interface tweaks for Windows 8 machines. Those perks join much improved tools for better workflow management and team collaboration too. That is, if managers opt into Microsoft’s new yearly subscription prices, which include local installs of Office software and access to cloud-based syncing services.

Microsoft’s new set of Office 365 Web apps lets users create, edit and share documents online, giving business users a built-in architecture for managing and editing documents through the Web.

For instance, in Excel, PowerPoint and Word 2013 documents, users can add comments to files, and readers who want to respond to those comments can do so directly in the document or they can email, IM, text or even video chat with team members (via Microsoft’s corporate communications client Lync or via Skype).

For teams with a roster of road warriors or work-anywhere employees, Microsoft Lync includes the ability to host audio and video meetings complete with screen sharing and high-definition video streaming.

Designed for organizations with one to 10 employees, the Office 365 Small Business Premium subscription package costs $149 per year and includes all Microsoft’s software, even Lync. Each user can install Office on up to five Windows 8 PCs or tablets as well as Mac computers.

3. Better virus protection and security

In Windows 7, Microsoft Defender guarded against invasive spyware and pop-up ads, but it lacked protection against anti-virus threats such as trojans, worms and bot-net attempts. With Windows 8, Defender gets a bolder shield to protect against all of the above, right from the operating system’s first launch.

The new Defender (shown) provides only basic anti-virus defense, but will likely save IT managers or small business owners the time to pay for and install third-party virus protection from McAfee or Norton. Plus, when paired with Windows 8’s new SmartScreen technology for verifying downloads against a list of reputable files, viruses and other malware are sure to have a harder time cracking IT-deployed devices.

Under the adage, “You can never be too safe,” Microsoft added other defensive weaponry to Windows 8’s arsenal. Namely, there’s Trusted Boot and Measured Boot, two new protections against rootkits that attack during the PC boot process.

A third tool is Enhanced BitLocker. This encryption weapon can now render whole hard drives unreadable to uncredentialed users, which moves beyond scrambling particular pockets of data such as previous versions of Windows. Plus, BitLocker now supports Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) for encryption, making it a trustworthy tool for government office workers.

4. Improved performance and smarter backups

Gone are the days of twiddling your thumbs, grabbing coffee or doing your taxes while waiting for Windows to load. Windows 8 not only launches much faster than its Windows 7 forebear, it uses a new boot-up bridge called the Unified Extensible Interface (UEFI) to access graphical drivers before the operating system is fully active. Earlier access to visual graphics helps replace old-school boot visuals with a more interesting — and shorter — sequence of visual cues. In our tests, a Lenovo ThinkPad T430 running Windows 8 booted in 25 seconds, half the time it took the same notebook to land on the Windows 7 home screen.

When it comes to restoring a Windows PC to factory settings, Microsoft eliminated the need to back up files, data and settings. With a new tool called Refresh, Windows users can essentially reinstall the OS while maintaining their own settings, document libraries and customizations. After the OS is restored, all saved data, settings and Metro apps are automatically reinstalled. Only desktop apps must be restored manually.

Windows 8 also borrows a strong backup tool from Apple. A new feature called File History saves a running timeline of all files — just like Mac OS X’s Timeline feature — to make backing up important documents and data an automated process. That’s sure to save IT managers time.

5. More efficient wireless connection management

When it comes to wireless connections, Windows 8 is vastly improved. First, the new Wi-Fi manager is smarter and faster. Rather than simply search out the nearest Wi-Fi network, the manager measures each signal’s throughput and chooses the source with the strongest bandwidth instead.

There’s also a Connection Standby mode, for updating data while a Windows 8 laptop or tablet is asleep. Those worried about battery life drain can place the device in Airplane Mode, just like most smartphones.

For employees who use mobile broadband to connect to get online, Windows 8 builds in a data meter to keep track of your usage. This is a great way to save the company money if you’re worried about overage fees. Last but not least, drivers for plug-and-play mobile broadband devices are built into the OS. Now, rather than downloading third-party broadband software to connect to the Web, devices that connect over 3G/4G data networks should work automatically. Their networks should appear in the same Wi-Fi manager as other wireless connections options.

6. Exchange ActiveSync built-in

Email accounts are a cinch to set up on Windows 8 PCs. That’s because for the first time ever, Outlook 2013 has built-in support for Exchange ActiveSync, the email solution that makes it very simple to connect email accounts to Android, iOS or Windows Phone devices. With ActiveSync ingrained in the OS and Outlook, savvy end-users or small business managers should have no problem connecting multiple email inboxes, syncing calendars and managing contacts on Windows 8 laptops or tablets.

7. Windows to Go makes Windows 8 plug-and-play on any PC

Imagine how happy business travelers would be if they could carry a Windows PC in their pocket instead of their laptop bag. Windows to Go, available only in Windows 8 Enterprise, allows just that by putting all the power of Windows 8 on a USB key, allowing users to plug into any Windows 7 or Windows 8 machine to access their system. The bootable OS image includes support for any apps added to the image by support staff.

There are some caveats, though. You won’t be able to access the Windows Store due to strict hardware licensing (so no downloading new apps). You’ll also love hibernation mode and access to the host computer’s storage drive.

8. Better Support for Virtualized systems and remote desktop support

If you’re an IT manager juggling loads of Windows XP legacy apps, you probably loved the Virtual PC feature in Windows 7. That’s because that tool lets users run a full, virtual install of Windows XP in a window within the Windows 7 environment, which meant fleet managers didn’t need to upgrade tons of dated machines.

For Windows 8, Microsoft offers multiple virtualization options, including a tool to use Windows XP as a virtual OS on a Windows 8 machine. The PC-within-a-PC tool is useful in other ways as well. For instance, with Microsoft Server 2012 and a technology called User Experience Virtualization, employees can access a remote, server-side and virtual copy of their Windows 8 desktop, even if the local machine runs Windows 7. Another example uses what Microsoft calls Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) to create multiple virtual PCs on one physical computer. So, if an office has an equipment crunch, one laptop can be assigned to several users, each with their own distinct virtual desktop that is complete with independent customizations, settings and personal setups.

Plus, because Windows 8 runs Hyper-V, the evolutionary upgrade to Windows Virtual PC (via Microsoft Server 2012), there’s roughly no slow-down between the actual interface and the virtual one. That means even a virtualized version of Windows 8 running on a touch-screen device can be used with all the touch and gesture controls native to that OS.