Remember that crystal ball you used last time Microsoft released a major version of Windows? Time to dust it off and start gazing into the future again. Analyst group Gartner predicts the next release, Windows 8, will come out next fall. There's already a developer preview available.

Migrating to a new operating system (OS) can cause a serious shakedown in your IT plans, especially when every desktop and laptop will need an upgrade. The new version is even designed to run on tablets.

The major question is this: how should you plan your upgrade strategy if at all?

According to Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst who studies desktop computers, small businesses are sometimes early adopters of a new OS because they tend to buy off-the-shelf systems. Meaning, that shiny new Dell you buy in a year might be running Windows 8.

Silver says it’s incredibly important to check with software vendors now, even at this early stage, to check their timeframe for supporting Windows 8. You may be running a key accounting program or customer relationship management (CRM) tool and it may or may not run on Windows 8 once you start your upgrades. It might be time to start thinking about which touchscreen tablets you use, for example Android or iOS models like the iPad.

The tablet question is important because Windows 8 is designed for future models from Samsung and others. Noted consumer analyst Rob Enderle says one of the most compelling features in Windows 8 has to do with tablet support. The new OS will run on ARM processors like the one that powers many Android tablets, provide all-day battery life, and could help you stay more attuned to your business processes with touchscreen apps on mobile devices. Sales reps could use the CRM tool on the road, and the app could tie into a Windows server at the office.

The new OS offers several other compelling features for small businesses. Silver said one of the most interesting features is the new Windows Store. He says, for small business, the store might make it easier for employees to obtain software on an approved, secure platform.

EtherCycle, a Chicago-based design firm, is already testing the early preview of Windows 8. They are evaluating the OS now because they anticipate client requests for apps that run on the new Metro interface, which you control by touch on a tablet. Metro looks keenly similar to the Windows Phone 7 interface, as it borrowed ideas from Microsoft’s defunct Zune player. You can drag and drop tiles around on the screen.

Dave Jakobik, a lead developer and partner at EtherCycle, says there’s another interesting feature they are already evaluating. Called Windows to Go, the idea is that you can load your settings and apps on a thumb drive. When a freelance developer visits the EtherCycle office, they can plug in the thumb drive and boot up as though they were in a home office.

Jakobik says he has tested out Windows 8 and is impressed by how it balances the touchscreen interface with a power-user platform that runs legacy apps.

Kevin Braithwaite, a co-founder of Damn Digital, says his agency, which designs apps for emerging computing platforms like tablets, is already planning their Windows 8 strategy. He’s intrigued by the fast boot-up (mere seconds compared to the current Windows versions), the new Metro interface and the new touchscreen features. For example, Windows 8 will provide a swipe gesture where you can run two apps side-by-side. On a tablet, that’s a unique feature that not even the iPad 2 can support—apps are strictly full-screen.

Braithwaite says he’s also intrigued by a new picture password feature. He says the new OS will show you a picture at start-up. To login, you’d click on a child’s face and draw a circle around a toy to gain access to the computer. That’s something a hacker could not guess.

Another important feature: the Metro UI is built on HTML5 and CSS3, two cutting-edge technologies that make apps run faster and in a more compatible way.

Interestingly, Silver says many large enterprises might actually skip the Windows 8 upgrade, mostly because they already spent so much money on their migration to Windows 7. The migration might not be a major factor for small businesses either, who probably do not hire consultants to help with migration and tend to be more lax about impulse upgrades.

Not every new feature in Windows 8 will cause a sensation. One example is the ribbon interface that started life in the current version of Microsoft Office. Now, it will be part of the Paint app and run in the Windows Explorer file viewer. The interface includes a wealth of icons and options—you can quickly sort files by size, for example, or check the properties of files.

Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies, told he is not a big fan of the ribbon interface. Windows 8 forces you to use the mouse more and move from one menu option to another. Some companies have even blamed the ribbon interface in Office 2010 for decreasing worker productivity as they have had a hard time learning the new options.

"I expect Windows 8 to have a fairly smooth introduction," says Kay. "The larger issue is whether the marketplace is tired of Windows revisions: tired of paying for them, implementing them, upgrading their hardware and applications to deal with them. There is quite a lot of resistance to Microsoft's persistent propensity to churn its software."

Whether you’re a fan of Windows 8 or not, one thing is clear: Microsoft will release the new OS in the next year, and the developer preview shows they are closer than anyone envisioned. In fact, in an test of the preview, the OS ran smoothly, never crashed, and ran faster than Windows 7. The boot-up time was just six seconds on a fast Digital Storm ODE high-end PC.