used with permission from HP Technology at Work

It may be the dead of winter, but harbingers of spring abound, including increasing daylight hours and the start of baseball’s spring training. Like the crack of the bat and the season’s first daffodils, April 8th—the day on which Microsoft® officially stops supporting its third-generation technology Windows XP operating system—will also be here before you know it.

As we’ve previously discussed, businesses that put off upgrading to Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 will not only miss out on powerful new features, they’ll also waste time and money on custom Microsoft or third party services to support an obsolete system prone to cyber attack. The question then isn’t whether to replace XP, but rather what to replace it with.

Though perhaps somewhat more slowly than what might be expected, the news of XP’s plodding but eventual demise is resonating among long-time users. This past fall, Net Applications data showed XP running just more than 31 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion computers [1]—significantly less than the 38 percent recorded early last summer [2]. Notably, companion data showed that in October, Windows 7 accounted for more than 46 percent of the market, as compared to Microsoft’s Windows 8’s slightly more than 8 percent [1].

But Windows 8.1 is receiving largely enthusiastic reviews that are bound to quickly escalate its use [3].

Among other enhancements, Microsoft is touting the introduction of a “start button” in Windows 8.1—non-existent in Windows 8—and the latest version’s easier overall customization as features to drive users to 8.1. Do these latest developments greatly benefit businesses, or does Windows 7 provide ample functionality in the transitioning from XP?

Compare and contrast

In partial response to small business’ less-than-enthusiastic acceptance of Windows Vista, Windows 7 was introduced in October 2009 as a strong alternative to XP [4]. Instead of requiring new hardware, Windows 7 quickly loads programs, boots and shuts down on existing hardware.  This translates into immediate cost savings. Windows 7 delivers simple navigation by resizing or making all open windows transparent, and includes multitasking features like thumbnail size preview icons accessible with one click.

Most hardware and software works right out of the box with Windows 7. File organization, which is an important aspect of business operations (think of small medical practices’ and insurance brokerages’ need to track sensitive patient and customer data for regulatory and fair practice purposes), is facilitated through the use of libraries that enable the convenient cataloging of readily retrievable files in single locations—regardless of where they reside. Network set up is easy; the Windows 7 Professional Edition supports connectivity with complex servers.

Third-party developer support for Windows 7 is strong and, more than XP’s, its overall performance better supports users’ everyday work and online experience. Another plus: in November, Microsoft delivered the newest and final version of Internet Explorer 11 for Windows 7, identical to that packaged in the 8.1 update for Windows 8 users.

The touch screen-friendly program features improved support for web standards as well as for hardware-accelerated 3D graphics and HTML5 video, which is ideal for small architecture and design firms. For businesses migrating to Windows 7, HP’s Client Migration Services for Windows 7 includes a full suite of services leveraging a “factory style” process for optimizing and modernizing application portfolios.

Windows 8.1: a touch more power

Despite these and other powerful features, Microsoft says availability of Windows 7, followed by support services, will soon end [5]. The company’s improvements to Windows 8.1 build upon Windows 8’s touch-enabled interface, so important to businesses’ eventual de facto acceptance of BYOD.

Unlike Windows 7, Windows 8.1 will likely require infrastructure upgrades to take full advantage of its new features (the long-term benefits figure to outweigh added short-term costs). In addition to increased mobility across desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones, Windows 8.1 enables the development of applications that work seamlessly across each of these devices.

Standardizing on 8.1 also lowers support costs by allowing IT to streamline support, with the added benefit of a “Workplace Join” feature that provides users access to corporate resources—regardless of the device used. Perhaps most significantly, 8.1’s device-neutral operation reduces support requests, freeing IT to focus on more strategic or revenue-generating activities. In fact, a self-help portal in the system’s service desk enables users to troubleshoot on their own.