Five fabulous Windows 7 features that boost productivity, reduce hassles

Windows 7 – Microsoft’s replacement operating system for its heavily criticized Windows Vista – is expected to be a hit with small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) for many reasons.

Chief among these are a vastly simplified licensing program, and simpler SKU (stock keeping unit) choices, according to a Canadian technology analyst.

When Microsoft revealed six different Windows 7 flavours last month, there was nothing named for the small business space.

That situation changed early this month when Microsoft, sans much fanfare, unveiled its Windows 7 Small Business Ignite Program.

Following the announcement, however, Microsoft has said strangely the program aims to ease the IT administrative burden for SMBs with the new OS.

Windows 7 will allow SMB organizations to focus on their business rather than the technology because the new software will simply networking and daily tasks with minor server use, according to Matt Wolodarsky, Product Manager for Microsoft Canada.

Still industry insiders say the new initiative demonstrates how keen Redmond is to ignite interest in the new operating system within the SMB space.

“Microsoft is clearly targeting small businesses that have skipped the Windows Vista upgrade for one reason or another,” according to Darin Stahl, lead analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

He said when developing Windows 7, Microsoft has been careful to avoid repeating the same blunders it made with Vista. “Windows 7 might not be ready yet, but one thing’s for sure it’s not Vista.”

Stahl cites five key Windows 7 features that will make the operating system a big hit with small businesses:

1. Fewer licensing hassles

There was a lot of licensing confusion around Vista when it was launched with eight different versions.

And the confusion wasn’t just about the spectrum of available choices, but also over how to access the software, and obtain upgrade licenses.

“Various versions were offered through re-seller channels, retail stores, and download sites,” recalled Stahl. “Users were never quite sure which features or functions they were they retaining or losing.”

Windows 7 Beta currently has six versions, but Redmond has taken steps to reduce the complications, according to Mike Ybarra, general manager, Windows product management at Microsoft Corp.

We made sure each Windows 7 edition is subset of the others, said Ybarra. “That means as a customer upgrades from one version to the next, they keep all features and functionality of the previous edition.”  

Upgrading, he said, will be a breeze, as users only need to unlock the appropriate key code on Widows 7 to switch to their desired version.

2. DirectAccess

Budget-constrained businesses with a small or no IT department will find it easier to set up and maintain Windows 7 for mobile workers.

Remote access to the corporate network, file sharing, intranet access, and easy authentication for using company resources – require a secure connection to a virtual private network.

With DirectAcess, a new capability targeted at remote workers that’s embedded in Windows 7, administrators can ensure updates are regularly distributed to trusted and known machines.

DirectAccess offers users the same experience working remotely as they would have when working in the office, according to a Microsoft technical paper about the feature.

It enables remote users to access corporate file shares, Web sites, and applications without connecting to a virtual private network (VPN).

It also establishes “bi-directional connectivity” with the company network each time the user’s DirectAccess-enabled portable computer is connected to the Internet, even before the user logs on, says the Microsoft paper.

IT benefits as network administrators can manage computers that are outside the office, even when these aren’t connected to a VPN.

Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 release 2, both include the DirectAccess capability.

3. BitLocker To Go

USB thumb drives are commonplace in the workplace. Their convenience notwithstanding, they also pose huge security risks.

Managing security and access to these devices can be a nightmare for administrators at a small business, who typically have have several responsibilities.

With BitLocker To Go, an administrator can set policies that would require removable drives to be encrypted before providing permission to download data on them.

The encryption process takes less than a minute and users are immediately alerted when they plug in an unencrypted drive.

4. Deployment image servicing and management (DISM)

A new Windows 7 command line, DISM allows users or administrators to view components of an OS image, and add or remove packages.

The can also update software and drivers on multiple machines simultaneously.

A big chunk of the maintenance costs incurred by small businesses comes from IT administrators having to physically work on each machine to perform upgrades, Stahl noted.

He said DISM “enables administrators to push upgrades and achieve a unified OS image remotely.”

5. Windows Troubleshooting Kit

This kit enables administrators to create their own “troubleshooting packs.” They can then activate these to correct issues identified within the company network.

Given the range of really useful features in Windows 7, those who stuck with Windows XP, instead of deploying Vista, appear to have made the right decision, Stahl said.

“I don’t think they knew that they were waiting for Windows 7, it was probably just a response to the [adverse] reaction Vista received.”

He predicted Windows 7 would be the operating system, we hoped Vista would be.

“At the end of the day, you’ll have to move on, because XP will have no support by 2014.”  

With files from Joaquim P. Menezes

Related stories:

Getting and installing Windows 7 beta – your questions answered

What installing Windows 7 feels like – a blow by blow account

Windows 7 is less of a resource-hog than Vista

XP users may be reluctant to embrace Windows 7

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