The time is now: October 26 is fast approaching and with it, the debut of the Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) Windows 8 operating system. While there remain a few glitches that will undoubtedly pose challenges for solution providers that resell Microsoft systems, Windows 8 offers a number of features that should not only appeal to the Channel, but also to potential end-users.
For VARs and customers alike, much of the promise of Windows 8 lies in standardization and, in turn, cost savings. Brian Posey, a Microsoft systems engineer, points out that many organizations use multiple operating systems on a number of different appliances, including desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. Windows 8 will run on X86/X64 and the tablet version, to be known as Windows RT, on ARM devices. The former will run on desktops and laptops, and the latter, Posey states, will look and act similarly on tablets, smartphones and potentially, other devices. “The advantage to standardizing around Windows 8 and Windows RT is that customers will be able to support the similar operating systems,” at a lesser expense, with fewer headaches for resellers.
He adds that at least one difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT—the fact that Windows RT cannot be domain joined—will create a sweet spot for VARs. This inability prevents group policies from being applied to Windows RT tablets from Active Directory. VARs, according to Posey, will be needed to identify for customers (and/or their IT departments) the best means of securing and managing Windows devices that are not domain joined. For example, the systems engineer asserts, Windows RT devices can be secured and, to an extent, managed through ActiveSync and VPN health policies.
Perhaps not surprisingly, support for X86/X64 PCs and ARM tablets ranked at the top of the list of desirable Windows 8 features cited by VARs participating in a focus group held by D&H Distributing. The operating system was loaded onto Lenovo (www.lenovo.com) IdeaCentre B520 all-in-one touchscreen PCs, each complete with a Logitech (www.logitech.com) MK320 wireless desktop package. Participants were asked a variety of questions about the system, including one pertaining to what they believe are its most important and as such, desirable features. Dual-device support ranked number one, with 60 percent of VARs queried checking it off the list. A touch-centric, tile-based user interface and better support for multiple monitors rated far less important and were tied at 20 percent.
Microsoft VAR Millersburg Information Systems, Millersburg, Pa., intends to leverage the dual support capability in Windows 8 to help spur its adoption by customers, according to Simon Heintzelman, an executive with the firm. “It is one of the features that will help [clients] get the most out of the system,” he says.
Elsewhere on the cost-savings and hassle-minimizing fronts, there is the Windows 8 Refresh feature. Refresh permits Windows to be installed without disturbing applications and operating system settings; leaving these intact during the re-installation process can lower maintenance expenditures. Moreover, it saves time and facilitates matters when Windows encounters a severe problem. Whereas rebuilding may have been a relatively easy task if a deployment image was available, this is not a common scenario, and manual reinstallation of Windows requires a considerable effort in terms of man hours.
Moreover, Windows 8 Refresh is based on the Windows Systems Image Manager service. Consequently, when there is a need to refresh a PC, replacement of kernel files with new copies of operating system files occurs via the process. Once the refresh has been completed, Windows links to any existing, previously installed Metro apps; there is no need to manually reinstall anything.
Integration Wins Kudos
Support for tablet integration bodes well for Windows 8. Its configuration is such that it works fluidly with tablet solutions running Microsoft OS. In addition to full multi-touch support, it touts the usual keyboard and mouse inputs, eliminating the need for a stylus. Windows 8 also scales across a variety of devices—PCs, laptops and tablets—with power settings manageable in line with the form factor of the individual device.
Some proponents of Windows 8, who requested to remain anonymous, contend that its feature-richness places it a cut above iPad and Android tablets. For one thing, they assert, adding a Bluetooth keyboard, a wireless mouse and a stand turns a Windows 8 tablet into a PC. Although the same can be done with an iPad or Android device, only Windows 8 runs productivity applications, notably Microsoft Office. Similarly, iOS and Android tablets run stripped-down apps, not full-blown applications, as both Windows 8 and Windows 8 RTM do.
For VARs, the new operating system could up the tablet solutions sales ante. In a research note published in early June, analysts from Morgan Stanley (www.morganstanley.com) purport that tablet shipments will exceed notebook shipments in 2013 and almost match PC shipments by 2015, spurred at least in part by the launch of Windows 8. “Our research suggests that 25 percent of users expect to buy a Windows 8 tablet, and Office is a key feature,” they write. In view of Microsoft’s strong position in business (and consumer) PCs, they add, “Windows 8 with Office could become the second largest tablet platform.”
Pushing the envelope, too, are productivity- and security-boosting capabilities. The incorporation of BitLocker and AppLocker as an adjunct to existing Microsoft security tools constitutes an example. Instead of encrypting all data that resides on a particular computer, the former encrypts only data being used by a given employee, thereby decreasing the time needed to perform measures to secure that device. With AppLocker, companies can control, on a case-by-case basis, employee access to apps, hence putting a lid on accidental virus corruption and malware infestation.
Moreover, the Windows to Go component of the enterprise edition enables the construction, via BitLocker, of a secured, encrypted, fully authorized and managed version of Windows 8 on a USB thumb drive. This version contains individual users’ apps and data and can be leveraged on multiple computers while eliminating risk of tainting corporate data with malicious information, as may occur when mobile workers utilize rogue computers.
“Users can pop the thumb drive into any computer and get the corporate desktop right there, and when they pop out the drive, the desktop goes away, leaving no traces on the machine,” explains Don Jones, a partner with
Concentrated Technology (www.concentratedtech.com), a boutique consulting, analysis and education firm headquartered in Las Vegas. “This is a feature getting relatively little, yet highly deserved spotlight.”
Just as significantly, Jones says, SMB 3.0, the file-sharing protocol in Windows 2012, gets the best love from Windows 8. “Automatic fallover of load-balanced SMB shares yields a whole new, better way to take
advantage of clustered file sharing,” he explains.
In another vein, both Posey and Jones deem the flexibility to build and run custom apps and harness enhanced virtualization features as two major pluses for Windows 8, from an end-user and ISV standpoint alike. Windows 8 development tools render it possible for proprietary applications to be designed to meet specific requirements and subsequently deployed within companies’ firewalls, far from the public Windows app store and its more generic offerings. Apps may be viewed in full-screen format on Windows-based PCs; they also support multi-touch technology. For ISVs, this opens doors to the PC market and to sharpening their competitive edge by putting together custom applications for individual businesses in different markets.
As for virtualization, the most recent version of Hyper-V resident within Windows 8 lets solution providers that are experimenting with and implementing different versions of apps run these programs on different platforms from one computer. A virtual format dubbed VHD facilitates storage of up to 16TB of data, with built-in security fail safes.
Naysayers Question Readiness
Such features and advantages notwithstanding, there are those who continue to question whether and to what degree Windows 8 will truly take hold. Some predict the timing of the release will be problem. While the end of support for Windows XP in April of 2014 will likely encourage a move away from that operating system and to Windows 8, there is speculation that enterprises that had already moved to Windows 7 will not want to engage in yet another transition.
“Windows 7 was brought in to clean up the mess Microsoft made with Windows Vista, and it seemingly has,” states one of the vendor’s VAR partners. “The new features are nice, but we’re just not sure they will grab our customers yet.”
Others point to what one VAR calls the “yet-to-be-perfected” features as possible deterrents to adoption—or perhaps plain glitches. The Refresh feature, which purportedly preserves some commonly executed customizations, but resets other customizations to their default values, is an example. “We will see what happens in October,” another Microsoft partner concludes. “But still, there is a lot of power in many of the features.”
Battle of the Operating Systems
Microsoft is banking on Windows 8 to spark sales of its operating system. However, other vendors aren’t ready to cede the market to the company, and continue to roll out their own OS platforms, particularly Google. The Big G’s Android operating system is an open source system that is getting a huge boost in the mobile world.
Casio America (www.casio.com), for example, recently introduced the VX-100, an Android-based product intended specifically for the POS industry. In terms of the open platform component of the VX-100, Casio provides a software development kit (SDK) to POS software vendors. The open platform allows the terminal to leverage different software applications designed for a variety of businesses to run on the tablet.
Highlights of the device’s embedded application encompass a customer loyalty database file and a reservation application, along with the ability to e-mail reports (to mobile devices) and Casio’s standard table service and quick service software. The VX-100 is equipped with a 10.4-inch adjustable color touch screen, an attached high-speed thermal printer, Ethernet port, serial ports and a built-in swivel 2X20 customer display.
It will be interesting to see how the POS landscape changes as more and more Android and Windows 8 solutions start making their way into the Channel.