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.

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Three industries face extinction due to mobile technology, exec says

NOTE: This posting first appeared in the June 11 edition of the Daily Herald Business Ledger

Alex Bratton has a warning for several industry executives.
Adapt your business model to mobile technology, or become extinct.
Bratton, CEO of Lisle-based Lextech, has seen firsthand how mobile and app technology is changing the way businesses operate. The company, during its 11-year existence, has itself adapted with the growth of mobile technology, providing Fortune 500 companies with custom technology solutions and “using it to drive real value to end users,” he said.
Through his work, Bratton said he has come to see common challenges across all the industries his company has worked with. Most notably, he said, are companies that don’t recognize small, innovative developers who are making apps that are cheaper and easier for the customer to use. As a result, Bratton predicts these three industries will not be the same in the next decade because of mobile technology.

1. Point of sale: These are the companies making cash registers, bar code scanners and cash sale systems.
“They are currently in the process of being blindsided by mobile payment solutions and they don’t even realize it,” he said.
He said Apple started the revolution with the development of the iPhone and iPad. Square, with the creation of a credit reader that plugs into an iPhone or iPad, has brought that revolution to the small business owner.
“This has allowed small, innovative companies to become giants very quickly,” Bratton said. “There are a lot of large organizations that don’t see this coming.”
He adds that the big companies have had the opportunity to become more innovative, but have not realized that the general public is now shifting away from traditional cash register sales to mobile devices.
“And the store owners are now realizing, ‘Oh, I can run my store on a couple of iPads? I don’t need that cash register anymore,’” he said. “Or I just need one cash drawer in the back because I can drive everything else on my mobile devices.”

2. Speech augmentation: It is a specialty industry that focuses on people who have difficulty speaking. Bratton said the industry leaders have developed devices with pictures or icons that a person can press, and the device speaks for them. These devices can cost several thousand dollars.
Developers have created apps that can do the same thing and more for considerably less cost to the customer, Bratton said.
“They are rapidly being put out of business by $50 to $100 apps that do remarkable things,” he said. “They let people communicate, are potentially easier to use, easier to update, and they just completely displace the specialty hardware.”
Bratton said he saw this about two years ago while working with clients in this industry. The companies panned the idea of developing mobile apps because the they thought the hardware wasn’t good enough, and their customers would continue to buy their more expensive devices.
“If someone needs a device today, am I going to spend $10,000 on a device of $100 on an app? That just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “And that $100 app may give me more capability that the other stuff.”

3. Portable gaming: Sony and Nintendo had the market in portable gaming with their PlayStation PSP and Nintendo DS devices, but Bratton notes “the iPod Touch has became a massive seller as a portable gaming device, and now all phones have the same capabilities.”
As a result, developers are creating games that can be played across platforms, and that can interact with other functions on a customer’s smartphone or tablet.
“People can use Skype, they can instant message, or use their phones,” he said. “It’s more flexible and it has a thousand more developers for it as well.”
This can especially be seen in the casual gaming market, such as puzzles, Sudoku, Words With Friends, and the like.
“This is just skyrocketing and in a way the Internet never could because we now have it in our pocket,” he said. “As adults, we’re probably not walking around with a Nintendo DS in our pockets, but we can fire up Angry Birds on our smartphone in a moment.”
All three industries share the same issue, he said: The leaders failed to recognize the potential of technology and the speed it has been moving, which has allowed small, innovative companies to come and essentially reshape the market. Bratton believes the invention of the smartphone was the catalyst for the explosion of mobile technology.
“The smartphone is the first piece of tech that’s easy to use,” he said. “As a result, the hurdle for the average person to adopt it has gone away. It’s the fastest adoption curve ever.”
And, as a result, it’s the customer driving the industries to change, as opposed to the opposite. And that means that all business — not just the three Bratton mentioned — face this challenge to stay viable.
“We as consumers are demanding it. Companies not forcing it on the consumers,” he said. “Consumers are dragging this into the enterprise and terrifying CIOs around the planet who haven’t figured it out yet.”
His advice is that company executives recognize and embrace the new technologies, then be more aggressive in innovation. And that goes beyond mobile technology, he added, as the advent of cloud computing, big data analytics and other future technology advances will affect how the industry will fare.
“Responsible executives need to understand what this technology means to their organization and not rely only on their tech team to tell them what to do. They have to understand the business impact of technology,” Bratton said.
“That’s scary. It’s a big change from the way we’ve run business for the last 30 years.”

Melrose Park company keeps the light lit on pinball

NOTE: This column first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of the Daily Herald Business Ledger

For many of us boomers, it was our first real exposure to technology.
But we never really saw — or cared about — the relays, switches and other electronics inside the ornately-painted box on four steel legs. We were too focused on keeping that perfectly polished silver ball from mercilessly slipping between the flippers.
Pinball was the game elevated to royalty by rock ‘n’ roll and played by millions who plunked down countless quarters in a quest to capture the merciless machine’s top score.
In its heyday, several pinball manufacturers — many based in the Chicago area — built the complex and ornate machines for the world. But as video games became big in the 80s, and gaming moved into our living rooms in the 90s, the glamour and business of pinball faded into history.
But inside a nondescript building nestled in a Melrose Park industrial park, Gary Stern is keeping the legacy of pinball alive. His company, Stern Pinball, is the only manufacturer of pinball machines in the world.
Stern, who has been in the pinball business for the majority of his 66 years, talks about the game with the energy of a player who just took the high score on a Fireball game.
“My father started in the game manufacturing business when I was two,” Stern said. In the 1940s, his father bought the Williams Pinball Company in Chicago. In the late 80s, it was sold to the Japanese game company Sega. In 1999, Stern bought the company back from Sega.
The pinball machines Stern makes are more technologically advanced than their predecessors, but he noted the core of the game hasn’t changed since it was developed in the 1930s.
“It’s still a bat and ballgame,” he said.
However, the game play experience has been improved with the help of technology. For example, computer chip memory allows the game to remember where a player left off during a play. Digital electronics provides animation during play. Even the bells and chimes have been replaced with digital audio recordings. Stern notes the “Rolling Stones” game, for example, features the music of the iconic rock band, and the “Family Guy” game has more than two hours of dialogue recorded by the show’s creator, Seth McFarlane.
More so, he notes, technology has made the machines more reliable, providing the ability to “self diagnose” problems and fix issues ranging from circuitry issues to a lost pinball.
“The electronics have changed so much over the years and it’s given us a lot more capabilities,” he said.
Even making a game has gone high-tech. Stern said game playing fields that were once designed on drafting tables are now done on computer screens with 2D CAD software. Once the game is designed, the parts are then completed using a 3-D design software, which has made the entire process more efficient.
“They can actually see how the parts will fit together, if the ball will fit through, what the ball’s is going to do,” Stern said. “And when its all done, they push a button and print out an assembly drawing with a whole bill of material.”
Stern’s Marketing Director Jody Dankberg said the company’s next step is to expand the pinball experience through new technologies. For example, the new Transformers game released this year features a number of QR codes that players can use to tap into information about the game, company, or even get some codes to speed up play.
Dankberg said the next step is to bring in a social aspect for players, connecting them to Wi-Fi and using online networks to play against each other.
“Pinball used to be very social, guys would go to a bar to play,” he said. “Now you might have a couple of guys with games in their home. Maybe with a webcam, they can talk to each other and play against each other. There are lots of things to do with an online database.”
Stern sells the games globally and about 55 percent of the inventory is exported, he said. Their customer base is threefold: operators and distributors who place the games in entertainment venues such as arcades and movie theaters; pinball enthusiasts and collectors; and the home entertainment market.
Stern said the home entertainment market is fairly new as boomers who grew up with pinball buy the machines for the family. But with prices upward to $6,000, it’s still a high-end device that shares itself with items such as pool tables and home theaters. In fact, Stern pinball games are primarily sold to consumers through high-end home entertainment stores, although they can also be found online through retail sites like Amazon.com and Bestbuy.com.
But it’s that very market, Stern adds, that’s creating a new generation of pinball wizards.
“One thing about having these games in the home is that teenagers are playing them, and that’s our next audience,” he said.
It’s also why Stern is focused on developing current and new games based on pop culture icons. Creating a game based on the “Transformers” movies, for example, gains appeal from young people, while the older generation appreciates the gaming experience.
As the only manufacturer of pinball machines in the world, Stern and his employees take an exceptional pride in the work they do and the torch they carry for a game that has its roots in Chicago and an appeal worldwide.
“The world will continue to exist without pinball,” Stern said. “But we feel a bit of that fabric of life would be gone.”
And while technology, advances in design and links to pop culture have helped expand and deepen the pinball playing experience, Stern insists the key to a successful pinball game lies in a simple core fundamental.
“It’s got to be fun!”
For more information, go to http://www.sternpinball.com.