Is small business ready for Windows 8?

Note: This first appeared in the Dec. 24 issue of the Daily Herald Business Ledger.

It’s new. It’s flashy. And it’s the next big thing, according to its maker.

But is Windows 8 the must-have operating system for your business?
Since it’s release in late October, Microsoft’s latest version of its flagship operating software has flooded the consumer market and received warm reviews from critics. The Seattle-based giant is hoping its newest incarnation will keep it competitive in the computing marketplace as the growth in smartphones and tablets has led rivals Apple and Google to whittle away at its dominance in the OS market.
The new Windows’ most striking difference is its radically redesigned user interface, which gives it the flexibility of running between PCs, laptops and mobile devices. The new interface is designed to be used on new touch screen computers, smartphones and tablets, as well as traditional PCs and laptops.
But if you’re an average business, you’re most likely running your system on a Windows predecessor, such as Windows 7, Vista, or even XP.
So is it worth the time and cost to upgrade your system now?
John Samborski, CEO of Ace Computers in Arlington Heights, doesn’t think Windows 8 will take the business world by storm the way its predecessors did. While Samborski believes Microsoft’s latest version is a good operating system, he says the radical changes in the way a person uses the software will keep many businesses from switching to it.
“The business crowd has not really moved to it. They’ve been pretty static. They need a good reason to move over,” Samborski said.
Ace Computers, which builds high-end desktop and server systems for businesses, has seen less than 10 percent of its clients ask for the Windows 8 platform, with the majority preferring to stay with Windows 7, according to Samborski. The reason, he notes, is the change in the user interface, and while other Windows 8 features make the software very efficient, the fact that it’s radically different from Microsoft’s previous incarnations will make business owners more hesitant to embrace it.
“Even though you can run it without touch, it really is emphasizing touch,” he said. “Very few of our customers request touch screens, even those who are buying Windows 8.
“Most people still want to use a keyboard and mouse, and most people would still rather type on a real keyboard than a screen,” he added.
Microsoft’s commitment to Windows 8 looks to develop a new user trend, Samborski said, in the same way when it introduced Windows 95 almost two decades ago. He notes it will be interesting to see in a year if Microsoft’s strategy pays off and the public embraces Windows 8 as the platform of choice for their computing needs.
“It’ll be interesting to see if Microsoft can change user expectations from what they want in their hardware,” he said.
But for now, he sees a limited future for Windows 8 in the workplace.
“Windows 8 will succeed in niche places, especially those focused on touch or maybe more for presentation type machines, where it lends itself more to touch,” Samborski said. “But I don’t see it being the operating system everyone is going to have on their desktop.”
Kevin Doyle, president of small business technology company 3Points based in Oak Brook, also thinks Windows 8 won’t be invading the workplace in the near future, mainly because third party applications that most businesses use are not compatible to the new system yet.
“The touch screen stuff is all fine and dandy, but the biggest thing that is going to have to bake in is that Windows 8 is going to need to be compatible with the software applications that run a business,” Doyle said. “The majority of third party applications are not compatible with Windows 8.”
Doyle noted that his clients who buy hardware that is shipped with Windows 8 must have it downgraded to Windows 7 in order to operate with their existing applications. However, he added that’s not such a bad thing as those third party developers work to upgrade their applications to work with Windows 8.
“This is great for a small business because when their third party applications are ready, they already have the (Windows 8) license,” he said.
But while Windows 8 may not be right for the workplace, Doyle notes businesses that are moving their employees toward mobile devices may find it a viable tool. He believes Microsoft main focus for Windows 8 is to bring the company into the mobile technology market, especially with making it the OS for its new tablet, Surface.
And Doyle notes Surface has the potential to be a major player in the business tablet market, rivaling the dominant Apple iPad.
“It’ll definitely be an alternative,” he said.
The big advantage Surface has over the iPad is its ability to save and share documents back to a network, Doyle said. In addition, the tablet is able to run Microsoft’s biggest business tools, such as the Office suite of Word, Excel, OneNote, Outlook and PowerPoint, which allows it to connect with the PC world, according to a recent 3Points blog posting.
“I think it’ll be the user preference at the end of the day, but I do think the Microsoft Surface will make a definite impact in the marketplace, especially as it relates to business,” Doyle said.

Silicon bog: Volo company’s software goes global

NOTE: This entry was first published in the Aug. 20 issue of the Daily Herald Business Ledger.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel may be touting his emerging downtown tech center, but the small Lake County village of Volo can lay claim to its own up-and-coming international technology hub.
Nestled in a former country school building not far from the famed Volo Bog is Atom AMPD, a small company that is finding international success with an all-in-one operating system designed for small to medium sized businesses.
The heart of the company’s business is the Atom OS, a Linux-based operating platform that combines key business software such as firewall, anti-virus, spam filter, access control and VoIP capabilities. The advantage of the system is that, where other companies may require thousands of dollars worth of servers and other hardware, the Atom OS is contained in a 2 gigabyte USB “Kwick Key” that can be plugged into existing hardware and become operational in a little as 15 minutes.
Atom AMPD CEO Dan Field sees his product as an economical and “green” alternative to the “big box” companies that sell similar business applications. (Field would not name names, but think Silicon Valley to get an idea who the big box companies are.)
Field, an entrepreneur who, in addition to Atom AMPD, is chairman of three other companies, noted the idea for Atom OS came from what he saw as a wasteful practice from other companies selling hardware and software to clients that needed to be replaced every few years.
“One thing I don’t like about the big box companies is that they sell shares,” he said. “When you buy shares, you need to buy the hardware too. Then when you need to upgrade, you need to buy the new hardware, too. Usually it’s on a 2 to 3 year cycle.”
When the hardware is replaced, then the company has to deal with either reselling or recycling the old equipment.
“By having a USB key, people have a choice. They can use their existing servers or get a new box,” he said. “Once they buy the license to the key, they own it. When we update the process, you just pay for the updates.”
Since the system is primarily software, Field said businesses can see a total cost of ownership savings of as much as 70 percent, as the need for additional hardware, IT support and additional licensing is reduced. That, he added, has made Atom OS attractive to governments and school districts who are operating on limited or reduced budgets.
Christopher Beyne, director of business development, said in addition to the cost savings, Kwick Key’s portability and ease of use has gotten attention from a wide array of businesses that traditionally network among a number of offices or remote locations, from medical facilities to insurance and real estate agencies.
But the company scored a major victory in June, when it entered into a licensing agreement with SunFAS in China. Under this agreement, SunFAS will use Atom OS in a product it will market in China under the name Sky OA3. Although the deal is expected to be finalized in September, Field said the system is already being implemented in a network of 600 driving schools in that country.
Field said the China deal was reached with help from Atom AMPD Chairman Tim Williams, who had developed a relationship with companies in Asia during his tenure with Motorola in the 1990s. Field also had established a global business network as well, and he believes it was the trust the two developed during their careers were vital in getting their small company to establish such a big deal.
“We’ve dealt a lot with trust and working on a handshake,” he said. “And in this case, both sides have come up to the plate very well.”
Field sees the China deal opening more doors in the region to Atom AMPD, possibly expanding the company into Vietnam and Singapore.
“The government is trying to build out infrastructure and they’re looking for the right solution to the problems. That’s where we’re stepping up,” he said. “We’re looking to be the edge device that some of the other projects will work through to get information back to the various companies, offices and government.”
Asia isn’t the only area where Atom AMPD has extended to. In addition to dealings in Canada and Europe (the Atom OS firewall was successfully tested at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and played a role in the 2012 London games), they’ve established a similar licensing deal in Latin America, where their operating system is being sold through a reseller.
Having Atom OS sold under a different name doesn’t bother Field, joking that Atom AMPD will become “one of those big companies you never hear of.”
“We don’t mind being the Oz behind the curtain,” he said. “The nice part is that we’re working with companies that can get some great ideas back to us that will help us build out our product platform.”
Feedback from their clients is key to improving their product, Field and Beyne stress. Atom AMPD has its own test lab where system and updates are run through the paces before shipping, so repairs are minimal at best.
“We don’t believe in the big box methods of letting your clients test out your product and telling you what the problems are,” Field said. “Quirks happen, but we have a system where we can fix it before the client gets it.”
What they have developed, they say, is less of a product and more of a disruptive technology.
“IT people do not like us,” Beyne said. “They see us as attack on their budget. They don’t need as much money to run their network or have the equipment in there, so their budgets will be reduced.
“Our approach is to go to the business officials as say “here is what you can save,’” he added.
Field simply notes: “It does a lot for not much money.”