Is it time for Windows 8.1?

The latest figures show that nearly 30% of desktop users are still running Windows XP. The bad news for those users is that Microsoft is ending support for Windows XP on April 8 2014, which means no more security updates or bug fixes. Application providers will also increasingly be leaving Windows XP out of their testing so finding compatible versions of software will become more difficult.

As a result, many IT administrators are facing the question of whether to move their remaining Windows XP users to the relative familiarity of Windows 7 or whether to go straight to Windows 8.1. Smaller companies without licensing agreements and downgrade rights may not have a choice if they buy new hardware on an as required basis.

A couple of years prior to the October 2012 release of Windows 8, Microsoft confirmed their policy of allowing manufacturers to pre-install the previous Windows version for up to 2 years after the release of a new operating system. That would mean the likes of Dell and HP will have to stop selling Windows 7 PCs in October 2014 – their Windows 7 choices are already noticeably restricted.

Microsoft itself will end mainstream support for Windows 7 in January 2015 although security and major bug fixes will be available until 2020. At least from the administrator’s point of view, Windows 8.1 is looking like a better long term choice and one that will probably be forced on them by the end of the year in any case. While there will be updates to Windows 8 this year, the next major release is unlikely to be before Spring 2015 and it’s unclear at this point whether that will be Windows 8.2 or Windows 9.

So Windows 8.1 looks like the point to buy in for small business administrators. How best to approach the implementation?

1. Use it yourself
There’s no getting away from the fact that Windows 8.1 requires a shift in the way you work. While it doesn’t take long to get used to, it is easy to forget if you’re not using it regularly yourself. So start the implementation with yourself and become the local expert.

2. Do your research
There are hundreds of articles available online describing how to get the best out of Windows 8.1. Read them and try out the best ideas.

3. Don’t try to make it Windows XP
The temptation is to configure everything so that it’s most like Windows XP or Windows 7. But give the new Metro interface a chance first, especially on touch capable devices. If you do decide to try to reproduce the desktop experience, do it from a position of understanding.

4. Consider 3rd party tools
If you do want to make life more familiar for your users, consider third party applications that try to reproduce the desktop experience. The best known is Stardocks’ Start8 which brings back a ‘proper’ Start button for $5 per user.

5. Test key applications
While you’re trialling Windows 8.1 yourself, make sure you thoroughly test all the main applications that your company relies on. Start with security applications such as antivirus software and VPN clients. Then move onto productivity suites such as Office and any line of business applications you may have – stock control, ordering etc. And don’t forget testing of major websites – you don’t want to find out that your finance controller can’t get online banking to work in Internet Explorer 11 on the day you install their new Windows 8 laptop. Your experiences here will also help you pick users with an easy upgrade path for the initial rollout.

6. Find some benefits
Understand the way your users work and find benefits for them in Windows 8.1. For road warriors, the Skydrive cloud storage integration may be a great feature (but do consider security implications). For power desktop users, consider upgrading their Office suite to the latest version (and maybe it’s time to look at Office 365 as well). Most users will find snap views, which allow you to easily position multiple windows on the screen, a great productivity boon.

7. Give yourself time
Especially at a small company, IT administration may only be a part of your job. So make sure your line manager and colleagues understand that the move to Windows 8.1 is an important one for the company. Giving a bit more of your time to the testing phase and the first few implementations will be a small price to pay to ensure the rollout goes smoothly for everybody else.