Which operating system do you need? Which applications are essential for all staff members? How will you ensure that your organisation complies with relevant regulations? This in-depth guide will attempt to answer all your software questions (along with some you haven't thought of.)
In the previous chapters of this series, most of our focus was on hardware. But without the right software it's pretty useless. There are millions of different applications you can choose from but we think you can drag them into four main categories; operating systems, productivity, applications and utilities.
Operating systems define how you work with your computer. The OS defines what happens when you click on a button, the location of menus and form the platform upon which every other application works. Productivity applications are the programs you use to do your work. They include applications like spreadsheets, word processors, accounting software and graphics packages.
Utilities cover the grab-bag of other programs that fulfil handy functions like end-point security or finding large files that take up lots of disk space or quickly jotting down a note. These are usually small programs that fulfil a useful, but non-critical task that makes life easier.
Operating Systems: Windows 7, 8 or 10?
The vast majority of businesses rely on some version of Windows for the desktop and laptop computers. If you're still running Windows XP — it's time to change. Microsoft no longer supports that operating system which means there are no more security or other updates coming unless you're prepared to pay big money.
The question then becomes, which version do you go for - Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 10?
There's no right or wrong answer here. It will largely come down to the needs of your business, your ability to support one system more effectively than the other, what hardware you have and what point you're at in the lifecycle of your hardware.
When defining how software is to be managed in an IT strategy, a useful guideline we've worked to has been to be no more than two operating system releases behind. That means that upgrades are less painful when you are forced towards them, as the leaps aren’t so big. For example companies that had moved from Windows XP to Windows Vista, even though it was much derided, found the transition to Windows 7 easier than those who switched from Windows XP straight to Windows 7.
If most of the computers you're using don’t have touchscreens then Windows 7 makes good sense as its main interface is not dependent on touching the screen. Also, if you're moving from Windows XP, Windows 7 is a more familiar user experience as the changes are far subtler than 8 or 10.
However, if you have a computer fleet that's mainly comprised of laptops and convertibles — laptops that can be used as tablets — then Windows 8 or 10 may be a safer bet. The tiled interface is touch-friendly and many features are accessible through different gestures.
If you're managing a fleet of devices with different capabilities there's no reason you can’t run a hybrid fleet. Windows 8.1 and 10 can be run with the traditional desktop as the default. That gives a reasonably familiar experience for most users.
In general, users in an office will be working with productivity applications so they'll be working in familiar territory and the operating system differences will be something they get used to. However, if you're planning a shift to the latest version of Windows, you will need to spend some time educating users as to the differences.
Desktop Apps And Subscription Apps
When it comes to the acquisition of software there are two main models — buying it outright or accessing it via a subscription.
It's important to recognise that purchasing software is not about owning the software. Purchasing software, either by download or when you purchase boxed software from a bricks and mortar retailer, doesn’t give you ownership. What you're really buying is a license to use the software in specific, limited ways. For example, some software is sold with limitations that only allow it to be installed on one computer at any one time.
Some applications allow you to install applications on multiple computers but only use one copy at a time while others limit the number of installation. There are some that are also limited to specific users. When buying software, make sure you understand the licensing arrangements.
Subscriptions are a relatively new way of accessing software. Rather than buying a perpetual license, you can pay a regular fee for ongoing access. As long as you keep up your subscription, you retain access to the software so you can continue to create new files and edit the existing ones.
The advantage of the subscription model is that you can avoid a large outlay of money for software. For example, buying Adobe's Creative Suite 6 Master Collection outright can cost close to $4000. Granted, there are some lower cost options and volume licensing arrangements available but that's a handy starting number. In contrast, a monthly subscription to Adobe's Creative Cloud service, which offers a subscription license to this software is currently $49.99 per month but requires an annual commitment so you'll be forking out $600 per year.
Assuming you'd be upgrading our software every three years or so, the subscription looks like a reasonable deal.
However, it's important to do your research and make sure you understand the terms and conditions. Another variation on the subscription model is cloud-based software. This is where applications are delivered to you via a web browser and don’t require anything specific to be installed on your computer. Examples of this are office productivity suites such as Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365, or accounting applications like Zero and Saasu. Almost any type of software you can think of is now available via the cloud and delivered to you in a web browser.
Often, there's a free version for many of these applications that comes with some limitation but a paid subscription unlocks more features.
The Five Essential Apps For Every Business Computer
So, what are the first five applications we'd suggest you install on a new computer?
#1 An Office Suite
To some degree, this will depend on what you're planning to do with the computer. If you're an office worker then you'll most likely start with an office suite such as Microsoft Office. However, there are a number of alternatives. If you're on a budget, there are several open source options such as Open Office, and Libre Office.
#2 A Web Browser
When it comes to web browsers, you're likely to land yourself in a religious war if you ask too many people. The main options if you're running Windows are Microsoft Internet Explorer, Firefox and Google Chrome. There are a few other options such as Safari and Opera but the any of the first three will work well.
Our personal recommendation is for Google Chrome. While most of the browsers are roughly equivalent for features and performance - the differences are not that significant - one area where Chrome stands out is that it has its own version of the Adobe Flash player embedded in the browser and, generally speaking, it is updated ahead of the public version of Flash.
Flash is often exploited by malware distributors so having it updated quickly is an advantage.
#3 Accounting Software
Many small to medium businesses will need to decide on which accounting software they want to use. This is a software category that has changed markedly over the last five years as a number of new entrants, delivering their software via the cloud, have changed the way accounting software works. Whereas this software used to be made for accountants, it's now designed with business operators in mind.
The mainstays of this segment, such as MYOB and QuickBooks have updated their software substantially and now offer options that work in cloud or locally on your PC.
Our advice is to work with your accountant on finding accounting software that works well for both of you.
#4 Graphics and Video
If you need graphical design or video editing software then you'll probably start with the Adobe suite of products although there are some lower cost and open source alternatives worth looking at.
For example, if you're after a free alternative to Photoshop there's GIMP - an open source alternative. Lightworks is a lower cost alternative for video editing. But given the subscription cost of Adobe's toolkit, it might be easier to go with the tool most people use.
#5 Point of Sale
Another important application you might need to consider is point of sale systems that make a computer into a cash register that can integrate with stock control and finance systems. There are lots of alternatives here with Lightspeed, Kounta and Vend offering either locally installed or cloud alternatives.
What's The Most Effective Way To License Apps?
When it comes to software licensing there are mots of different variants. In fact, it is so complex that there's an entire software niche dedicated to the job of managing compliance to software licensing.
Firstly, you can just buy software as you need it. There are some applications that offer multi-user packs but in most cases each box of software you buy will be a single license.
Many applications offer multiple license packs that offer the second and subsequent licenses to be purchased at a discount rate. These are worth investigating as they can save you lots of money. Often, purchasing a few extra licenses can be cheaper than buying exactly what you need and provide some room for future growth.
Many companies prefer to use a specific version of Windows with Windows 8 Pro and Enterprise most popular. Microsoft, through its Enterprise Agreement program, allows computer purchasers to buy hardware with the less expensive Windows 8 and then upgrade to the higher-spec versions at a lower cost.
The Enterprise Agreement is contingent on paying a fixed amount every year with the amount changing each year when there's a audit to ensure that the customer isn’t over or under paying Microsoft.
Other applications, such as large programs such as SAP, use other models such as named users, where software is licensed to the specific use of people who are explicitly nominated. In other cases, the software can be made available to an unlimited number of users but only a fixed number can use the program at any one time. This is a concurrent user agreement.
When it comes to choosing the best way to license applications, the devil is in the detail. It's likely that, even if you only have a few applications, that each will be governed by different licensing arrangements.
This is important, not just from a moral stand point but also a legal one. The BSA, Business Software Alliance, is a trade group of major software vendors that can audit your installed applications and, if you're found in breach of licensing arrangements, levy fines.
Checklist: Buying Software
- Choose an operating that works best with your hardware
- Don’t underestimate the importance of user consultation and education when changing a piece of software.
- Look carefully at the licensing conditions
- Think about how often you plan to update software and weigh up the different costs of traditional applications vs subscription
- Consider whether cloud-delivered software might be a better fit than traditionally installed software.
- Factor in support and installation costs when working out total costs. A lower cost or free option might cost more when you factor these in.
- Keep copies of all your software licensing arrangements and look for a system that allows you to mange them.
That wraps up our Business Tech Guide for 2015! You can our previous entries in the series by clicking on this tag.