Whenever Microsoft releases a new operating system, it is a significant event. And the latest edition of its operating system, Windows 8 - designed to work on desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones - is much more than a PC operating system.
By tightly integrating PCs, tablets and smartphones with SkyDrive cloud storage, Microsoft Office 365 (cloud-hosted Office apps, including Exchange Server) and other Microsoft properties, Microsoft now offers a business-class alternative to similar Apple and Google properties.
Yet for Windows 8 to achieve its full potential for financial advisors, it will not be sufficient for advisors to use it; custodians, broker-dealers and third-party vendors must embrace it, as well. If they do, Windows 8 has great potential to help advisors become more productive.
One of the reasons for the interface overhaul was to make Windows 8 compatible with touch-screen devices. While this applies primarily today to smartphones and tablets, I am already seeing Windows 8 desktop PCs and laptops with touch screens. As these touch-screen PCs become more prevalent, they will revolutionize the way advisors interact with their computers.
One issue to ponder when evaluating Windows 8 (or, for that matter, any new technology) is actual use. Consumer reviews of Windows 8 have tended to focus on usability and, in the case of smartphones and tablets, the number of apps available. While these are certainly important, advisors have specific needs that need to be addressed.
Here are five key insights to understanding how Windows 8 will affect your work.
1) SECURITY IS MUCH BETTER
Windows 8 features a few new security benefits, but one of the most important is Secure Boot. This requires that all applications running during the boot sequence be presigned with valid digital certificates. Essentially, it ensures that files loaded during startup have not been tampered with; if a rogue file tries to load, Secure Boot will intercept it. (Bonus: It also starts up much faster than its predecessor, the old BIOS system.)
Microsoft has also beefed up its free security software to include antivirus software. And it has altered the order in which it loads drivers so that security software runs first; this applies whether you use the free Windows Defender suite or the security suite of your choice.
By acting as a gatekeeper, the Windows 8 app store is itself another security enhancement. Windows 8 also quarantines applications and Internet Explorer plug-ins, isolating them from the operating system to limit the damage that malicious apps can cause.
There are other security upgrades aimed at enterprises. One of the most interesting is Dynamic Access Control: Administrators can now deny access to almost any piece of data based on almost any claim or attribute. For example, you might deny folder access to certain people unless they were working locally, from a company-issued tablet. Principals might be able to access the same data off-site, but again, only from company-issued devices.
2) OFFICE GETS EASIER
For advisors, perhaps the greatest frustration with Apple iOS is the lack of native support for Microsoft Office software. Mac versions of Office are available, but they are generally less robust than the PC versions. Windows8 offers a unified experience: Whether you use a phone, a tablet or a PC, you get built-in support for Office apps. Furthermore, Windows 8 and the upcoming Office 2013 integrate tightly with SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud file storage system. If you save an Office document to SkyDrive, it is easily accessible from any Windows 8 device.
3) THERE ARE SWEET EXTRAS ...
Windows 8 offers a few other features that should appeal to advisors.
Live tiles: These elements of the new start screen have a lot of potential once industry developers start to take advantage of them. Unlike iOS icons, live tiles can hold information that updates in real time. Imagine custom tiles that contain alerts when your best clients email you, or when funds are deposited in a client account.
Customization: This is another Windows 8 strong suit. Advisors can decide exactly what they want to see on the initial screen of phones, tablets and PCs. All can be configured with the same tiles, or each can be configured differently.
Integrated contact management: The included People app pulls in contact information from all of your online sources, including Outlook, Gmail and LinkedIn. As these and other capabilities integrate with the CRM applications that advisors use, staying up to date on relationships should get simpler.
Graphics: The improved graphics capabilities of Windows 8 are not yet appreciatedfully because there are few advisor-specific applications now available. But if you try apps like Evernote in Windows 8 after experiencing them in other environments, you'll begin to appreciate the potential. I did preview one early advisor-facing Windows 8 app: FinFolio's portfolio management software. The graphics are amazing.
4) ... BUT LIMITED APPS
While Windows 8 is very appealing, a few cautionary notes are in order.
App availability is a problem. To reap the full benefits of Windows 8, developers have to write or rewrite apps to take advantage of its abilities. This is still a work in progress.
There is also the issue of compatibility: You'll want to make sure your vendors, B-Ds and custodians are Windows 8-compatible.
There are other stumbling blocks. Due to the level of customization Windows 8 offers, there is a greater learning curve than there is for iOS. A little training can go a long way, though.
Some critics also view the new Metro interface as a disadvantage. I don't think it is, but if you do, you can bypass it easilyand work from a screen that is almost identical to the Windows 7 desktop.
There is also a great deal of confusion around the Microsoft Surface tablet, which runs on an ARM processor - the same processor that powers most popular mobile devices. Windows-compatible programs will not run on the current Surface. (The Surface Pro, due out soon, will run on an Intel processor, so it will be able to run most current Windows applications.)
5) THE LONG TERM LOOKS GOOD
I expect advisors will gravitate to Windows 8 sooner rather than later. I know from the recent Financial Planning Tech Survey that 37% of respondents still operate one or more computers running Windows XP, an operating system launched in August 2001. What these users may not know: On April 14, 2009, Windows XP reached the end of its mainstream support period. Microsoft currently provides monthly security updates for XP, but free technical support, warranty claims and design changes are no longer offered.
Not convinced? On April 8, 2014, all support for XP security patches and hotfixes is scheduled to end. After that, one could argue that it would be irresponsible to use XP in a business setting.
I believe the release of Windows 8 will encourage a new round of technological innovation for advisors. Those who adapt the system sooner are likely to be the greatest beneficiaries of these innovations.
Joel Bruckenstein, a Financial Planning editor-at-large, is co-creator of the Technology Tools for Today newsletter, conference series and technology guides for advisors, including the new Technology Tools for Today's High Margin Practice. For more info, visit JoelBruckenstein.com.