A couple of weeks ago, several of my colleagues debated the advantages and disadvantages of the Microsoft Windows 8 operating system ("Three ugly, middle-aged men argue about Windows 8"). Today, the consumer preview is going live, which will undoubtedly prompt a flurry of prognostications about when, where and why Windows 8 will become the Best. Windows OS. Ever.
I have no specific opinion about Windows, because I haven't been forced to use it for an extended period of time in years (except recently when I was judging some journalism awards). But the Windows 8 release cycle represents a great time for small businesses to think long and hard about whether what has been long considered the defacto or default standard for business computing is really the best technology for running a small business.
I should disclose that I am definitely a Macintosh advocate and have been using some version of the operating system since the pre-Macintosh days (aka, the initial attempt on the now defunct Lisa computer). I am an iPerson, for sure, if there is such a thing. Then again, most people who rave about Windows use that operating system and an ecosystem of related products to run their life, so I don't think that the fact that I use a MacBook Pro myself makes me more or less biased in that regard.
The point of this particular commentary is to suggest that as small-business owners consider Windows 8 -- which has been described by ZDNet commentator Ed Bott as the "most consequential product release in nearly two decade" -- they ask themselves the following questions:
- Are there industry-specific applications you need that require Windows? It used to be that certain industries, take real estate as an example, were basically forced to use Windows because some really specialized applications were built for this purpose. There are two reasons why this doesn't matter as much any more. First, you can easily run virtual desktop software on your Macintosh desktop or notebook that can accommodate anything legacy that just isn't supported. Second, many of these applications are moving into the cloud and are being offered as a service, which means that all you need is a supported Web browser.
- Which platform do most of your employees use? Training is a big consideration for businesses of every size. If you have a limited budget, you should definitely more closely consider what key employees are using for their personal life. This is especially true when you consider that Windows 8 apparently includes some pretty dramatic interface changes. That, alone, means that there will be a usability learning curve. If many of your employees are already using Macintosh computers at home, it might affect the learning curve for your investment. Heck, even if they aren't using Macintosh, if Windows 8 really represents a major interface change, when not go for it?
- Do you have someone to manage configurations and patches? Here's a newsflash. Sometimes Macintosh computers misbehave. They freeze, they get all choked up by certain software (in my case, some security software). The good news is that most of the time it is incredibly easy to get them up and running again. Figuring out how to fix things is pretty intuitive and the Time Machine Backup feature, which does its thing in the background, has been a lifesaver for me on more than one recent occasion. Configuring and setting up Macintosh systems, in my experience, is still way easier than trying to mess with the configurations on a Windows machine. Of course, that can also be dangerous, but you can lock down systems pretty easily so that systems can't be reconfigured. The AppStore upgrade method that is native to Macintosh Lion is also a great way to keep on top of patches and updates that are vital to your most important software.
- How mobile is your business? There are three reasons why this matters. In fact, why it matters a great deal. First, is the exquisitely seamless nature with which people can share accounts and information between Macintosh desktops and various mobile devices. Obviously, the most "friendly" ones being part of the iFamily. I know many people have their doubts about iCloud, but the fact is that I don't usually need to think about whether or not I will have access to my entire contact database or email -- regardless of what I've grabbed when I'm running off for a trip. Sure, you can synchronize an iPhone with a Windows computer, but it's like the difference between a sibling and a step sibling. There's an affinity and bond, but do you share the same DNA? The second reason is especially compelling for small businesses that are in the retail industry. The mobile commerce and payment applications that are emerging for the iOS platform are pretty compelling, as I've written in this column several times. Many of them can be integrated right into point of sale systems running on the Macintosh platform. Sure, there are ways that these applications can be integrated into open source or Windows-based backend systems, but things aren't as easy. The third reason you should think mobile? If your company is even remotely interested in an ultrabook, the MacBook Air continues to lead this category with its elegance, weight and simplicity. It will take months for many of the real competitors in the notebook segment to catch up.
It is quite obvious that the world of computing is at an inflection point, and it would be a shame if small businesses limited their available options because of a historical bias against the Macintosh platform in the enterprise world. Even in that space, in fact, the Macintosh is finally getting its due, because of the dramatic acceptance of the iPad. It definitely is time for small businesses to reconsider the OS they embrace when they make their next personal computer purchases.