By Dr Malcolm Newdick, Riverbank IT

The prospect of Microsoft releasing a new version of Windows is often daunting for small businesses. Yes, updates mean new features and capabilities that will ideally enable us to run our businesses better and there is the inevitable buzz created by media – speculation around new capabilities, how successful it will be, what this means for Microsoft’s future. Meanwhile, developers and other geeks eagerly await its arrival; new tools help them build better applications.

Like change or not, with the Windows 10 release just weeks away, smart business owners must think ahead and prepare. Here is our Windows 10 101 to help you navigate the next few weeks:

Support for Windows 7 and 8 ends sooner than you think

These applications have a shelf life, with Windows 7 support having ended in January. Microsoft has extended support for Windows 8.1 to 2023; its policy is to support products for two years after the release of its successor. Industry expectation is that general support for Windows 8 will wrap up by July 2017.

Part of the Windows 10 ethos is Microsoft moving with its customers to the future. Terry Myserson, Microsoft’s VP of Operating System, explained: “We designed Windows 10 to run our broadest device family ever, including Windows PCs, Windows tablets, Windows phones, Windows for the Internet of Things, Microsoft Surface Hub, Xbox One and Microsoft HoloLens—all working together to empower you to do great things.”

Windows 8 is not part of this. Nor is Windows 9 - Microsoft skipped a version.

You have one whole year to upgrade for free[b]

As with many small businesses, you probably have a mix of Windows 7 and Windows 8 PCs and devices; you will need a plan within the next year to capitalise on the free Microsoft upgrade.

Work with your IT team and partners to plan your upgrades ahead, schedule them for least active times and upgrade in phases, starting with your least critical devices. This leads to our next recommendation…

[b]To click or not to click

When it comes to your IT network, it’s important to proceed with caution. There will inevitably be a period of bug fixes and updated drivers – and until these arrive, you risk problems like a printer not being recognised or, worse still, a critical application not working. We’re recommending our clients hold fire on clicking the “Reserve your upgrade’ icon that’s appeared in your system tray and communicate this across all teams.

It’s best to hold off until 6 months after the initial release. This gives Microsoft time to respond to bugs and glitches and to release their first service pack (hopefully)!. Once the service pack is released it will address all the outstanding issues with the new OS. Only then should a business begin their upgrade Your IT team will be able to build a comprehensive upgrade plan around the first bug-fixing build of Windows 10.

And, who is Cortana?

Cortana is Microsoft’s much-hyped personal digital assistant and one of the star attractions. It enables you to interact in a more ‘human’ way, talking or typing simple phrases to do things like book meetings, find information and set reminders. It remains to be seen how useful this will be to businesses, and if PAs need to start looking for another job!

Another new feature will be Edge, Microsoft’s new web browser that will replace the ageing Internet Explorer. Set to be faster, more streamlined and more personal than Internet Explorer, an enhanced addition is the ability to write ‘notes’ on a web page, which you’ll see every time you access it.

Windows 10 – ROI is down to you

As with all things in life, what you put in is what you get out. Standardising the Windows 10 platform across all your company’s devices gives your business a unified, simplified and integrated experience for managing their data, communication and collaboration tools. Embrace Cortana as a way to get things done faster and benefit from the enhanced security features Edge offer. Consider workshops with your team to help them maximise the new features enabling them to work faster, easier and become more productive.

Clearly, the hope is that Windows 10 will win over the public with its ability to run on a variety of platforms, giving users a seamless experience as they swap between fixed and mobile computers and use different software and Cloud services. The new OS has been tested with over 4 million people, so we’re hoping for an operating system that’s more user-friendly and not so reliant as Windows 8 on touchscreen functionality.

As Microsoft’s first big release under new CEO, Satya Nadella, Windows 10 is part of a wider cultural shift as the company endeavours to reclaim its stake as a software innovator whose applications enable customers to do things quicker, better, smarter. How will your business take steps towards this?