The World of Microsoft
Microsoft's Windows 8 is the latest in a long line of upgrades, and to date, the greatest departure from previous Windows operating systems. The most notable renovation is the touch interface, but the fact that Windows 8 also is largely app-based has some users sticking to its predecessor, Window 7, for work-related tasks.
Even so, the Windows series has remained largely unchallenged for business use. In the last few years, though, open source software suites have given Microsoft a run for their money. With OpenOffice as the pioneer, Google Apps for Business has recently entered the fray. Free or for just dollars a month, these products range from word processing to mail, file storage, conferencing and backup, all happening online or within the Cloud.
Windows 8 - New Features
Dozens of high-tech changes have gone into Windows 8, but as a small business owner and average user, you need know only the most dramatic. Here is a rundown of features you may like - or not:
- Touch Interface. This is likely the biggest departure from other Windows operating systems. While Windows 7 had a limited-capacity touch interface, Windows 8 has fully developed that feature. Desktop touch support is excellent, and the on-screen keyboard and handwriting recognition functions likewise are more efficient.
Fortunately, the touch interface also operates on older, non-touch computers. If your equipment falls into this category, a number of trackpads and touch mice - from Microsoft and other vendors - support Windows 8 maneuvers.
- Start Screen. As opposed to the old Start Menu, this new version is specifically designed for touch. Populated with live tiles, the Start Screen takes you straight to programs you select, with no need to scroll through a long list. The new screen also quick-launches desktop apps or Windows 8 Modern UI apps.
- Security. The first time you turn on sharing functions, Windows 8 instantly sets the correct security and firewall settings for the type of network you employ. You can turn sharing on or off quickly, too, making it easier to work between public and private locations.
Security enhancements in Windows 8 include family safety settings to monitor and block unsafe, undesirable activity in young users; automatic updates with user permission; data and device security; and a phishing filter. Notably, Windows 8 now has built-in antivirus protection. Running in the background,Windows Defender notifies the user if specific action is required, but it can scan for malware upon demand if you experience computer problems.
- Charms. A "charm" according to Microsoft, is a quick access shortcut to frequently-used tasks and programs. Hidden from plain view, the charm taskbar appears upon swiping in from the right on a touchscreen, or when using a mouse for the same purpose. The default charms in Windows 8 are the:
- Search Charm. This enables you to locate settings, files and apps. When you are actively working in an app, the Search Charm will provide app-specific results. Search functions are available via the Start Screen, too.
- Share Charm. Use this charm to share app-specific information with others. For example, when working in a browser app, you can share or email webpages to clients, colleagues or coworkers. It likewise allows you to share photos, data and other information without leaving the app you're in.
- Start Charm. Tap this charm to instantly return to the Start Screen.
- Devices Charm. This function provides access to printers, Bluetooth appliances, etc.
- Settings Charm. This charm allows instant control over basic functions such as brightness, volume, and shutdown or sleep options.
- Social Networking. Windows 8 offers native support of LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, so it’s easy to keep up with both social and professional networks.
- Improved Multiple Monitor Support. Windows 8 allows alternate displays on two or more monitors. For instance, one display can show the Start Screen, while the other shows the desktop. A split screen function is available, too, with several screens visible on one monitor.
The multi-monitor function allows you and your staff to work on several different tasks simultaneously. By the same token, a split screen facilitates some editing tasks.
- Windows Store. Although the Windows Store has been around awhile, never before has it been such a key component to an operating system. Integrated closely with Windows 8, the Store provides easily accessible desktop and Modern UI apps, both paid and free. As in the case of its iOS and Android competitors, downloading updates is a simple process.
- Cloud Integration. With Google Apps for Business casting a big shadow, Microsoft made sure to make Cloud integration pivotal to Windows 8. SkyDrive - Microsoft’s personal cloud storage service - enables users to store, sync and access files across all Windows PC and Mac OS X computers and laptops. The function also applies to mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, among them Windows Phone 7 and 8 devices and Apple iOS-powered iPhones and iPads.
Microsoft's Office Web Apps - browser-based editions of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote - permits users to view, compose and edit Microsoft Office documents on any device.
There IS a Downside
While Windows 8 fans tout lightening quick boot-up time, 3G/4G support, push button reset and a slew of other features as major benefits, even the most passionate aficionados admit to some flaws. These include:
- Lack of a Start Menu. Critics say this omission make its use in a business setting difficult.
- Training Requirements. Because Windows 8 is a very different animal from its predecessor, Windows 7, integrating the system into the workplace requires many training hours.
- Neglected Corporate Desktop. Users have complained that with its emphasis on touch interface and mobility, Windows 8 pays scant attention to the corporate desktop.
- Hardware Costs. Though Windows 8 does operate on older computers, businesses will need to purchase new hardware to take full advantage of the touch interface.
- Fragmented Ecosystem. In Windows 8, ARM-based devices cannot join Active Directories. This poses real problems for small businesses considering Bring Your Own Device policies.
Still, experts say that Windows 8.1 and future versions have - and will - address these glitches.
Apache OpenOffice 4.0 and Google Apps for Business
Apache OpenOffice 4 suite (available for download at www.openoffice.org) offers a free alternative that provides virtually all the features of Microsoft productivity products. Google Apps for Business offers similar capabilities, though Google does impose a range of fees for its services.
A huge benefit OpenOffice products continue to offer is online storage, backup and maintenance, while Google Apps have always been Cloud-based. But with Windows 8 stepping into the Cloud, the field of competition has become more interesting. Some experts maintain that - in the end - business owners likely will go with the system they find easiest to use, while keeping a careful eye on the bottom line.
Apache OpenOffice 4.0
The latest in a long line of products, Apache OpenOffice 4.0 is distributed as open source software, meaning that it is offered for free and maintained by volunteer programmers. Participating companies, such as the firms distributing the Linux operating systems, hope to sell high-margin services for installing and maintaining the software.
Whatever the motivation, users benefit by getting free access to powerful applications that provide a viable alternative to expensive productivity suites. Volunteer developers consistently work on updates designed to improve the usability, security and speed of the OpenOffice applications. Depending on the version and sales outlet, list pricing for Microsoft Office products can be costly, so free alternatives are attractive to business owners on a tight budget.
The OpenOffice suite includes:
Google Apps for Business
Google Apps for Business showcase a slew of familiar and pioneer products in one version or another. Basics include Gmail, Calendar, Drive (file and document storage), Docs (word processor, file storage) and Hangouts (messaging, phone, video calls). Others are Sites (shared workspace for teams), Quickoffice (word processing for mobile devices), Chrome for Business (Internet browser) and dozens of additional business-centered applications.
The basic app package is free for up to 10 users, with a $5 monthly fee for expansion to the Apps for Business package. This level upgrades email storage to 25 gigabytes per user, and throws in video and workgroup apps. Flexible pricing schedules are available as well.
The Google Cloud Platform, which lets you build applications and websites, store data, and analyze data on Google’s infrastructure, offers a tiered price schedule. Some services are free, with others carrying small monthly or per use charges.
Setting up a Google Apps account for your company permits personnel to exchange messages and share documents, among other functions. Google offers a free trial period, with a small monthly fee added should you decide to stick with the service.
Sharing and Compatibility
Both Google Business Apps and Apache OpenOffice 4.0 have been engineered to promote compatibility with Microsoft Office documents and files. Users can import files using Microsoft's file formats, including the .docx files used in the latest versions of Microsoft Word. Unless a document has a large amount of complicated formatting, both systems can open and work with files without difficulty.
Similarly, it's easy to save an OpenOffice/Google document into variety of file types, including some Word formats, rich text, plain text, HTML, XML, and others. Calc and Impress files can also be saved into the default formats for their matching Microsoft applications, so Office Users can open them easily.
Nonetheless, as much as both companies tout their virtually universal compatibility with Microsoft products, the fact remains that saving or converting files to one format or another can be tricky. On the upside, Microsoft and its competitors are constantly working to bring their products into sync.