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Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 is not a service pack.  It’s a pretty comprehensive OS refresh, with lots of new features and UI enhancements.  The public preview will be available June 26th, with a supported upgrade path to RTM (although if you do install the preview, you’ll have to reinstall your apps when you go to RTM).  Microsoft releases upgrade information.

windows-8_1

You probably already heard that Microsoft was bringing back the Start Button (but not the Start Menu; the start button is just a shortcut to the Start Screen).  But there’s a lot of new eye candy and functionality.  They made search a lot more useful.  They improved the “snap” window experience (now with multiple apps onscreen at once).  They made it easier to move and group start screen tiles.  Stuff like that.

 

Here’s a short video demonstrating some of the new user experience things:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=VQb5caeSo00

 

In addition to this, there are some interesting enterprise-friendly enhancements, including near-field communication, remote-wipe for corporate machines, etc.   Here’s a blurb from Paul Thurrott:

 

Windows 8.1 Free Update

Windows 8.1, in case you’ve not heard, is a coming free update to Windows 8 (and RT) that is akin to a combined service pack and feature pack. I’ve described it in the past as an apology and a mulligan because the initial release of Windows 8 has been met with such incredible resistance. And this isn’t just manufactured hatred from partisan tech bloggers and technology fans, though there’s certainly something to be said about that. No, despite claims of 100 million licenses sold, Windows 8 simply isn’t seeing the real-world usage to match Microsoft’s claims. This is the slowest-ever rollout of a mainstream Windows version, period.

We can debate the reasons, but I think it boils down to a few key points. First, Microsoft made the controversial and aggressive decision to comingling two completely different OSs under a single system, the classic desktop OS (what used to be Windows) and a new touch-first mobile OS I still call Metro. Second, as a 1.0 system, Metro is incomplete and feature-light, and it doesn’t integrate well with the desktop at all. And third, and perhaps most damaging, Microsoft has for the first time provided no way for users to leverage years of experience and utilize previous UIs, perhaps temporarily, until they learn the new stuff.

So here comes Windows 8.1. Microsoft says it is listening to customer feedback now (the apology) and is updating Windows 8 to return some of those missing legacy UIs and appease disgruntled users. And it is essentially re-launching Windows 8 (and its ARM-based cousin Windows RT) with the Windows 8.1 update this year on a new generation of devices and even device types, like smaller mini-tablets (the mulligan).

Microsoft Returning Start Button to Desktop

This is all very obvious, and as Windows 8.1 leaks made the rounds over the past few months, what we saw matched expectations. There are major updates to the Metro features in Windows, maturing the environment to the point where it may actually be usable. Microsoft is returning the Start button to the desktop, where it belongs, and is allowing users to boot to the desktop, as many with traditional PCs would want and expect.

But at TechEd this week, Microsoft for the first time revealed that it is also imbuing Windows 8.1 with a surprising range of business features. And these additions are now challenging the conventional wisdom that businesses would simply skip this generation of software and wait for Windows 9 (or whatever).

I provide a complete rundown of these new features in article In Blue: Business Features in Windows 8.1. Here, what I’d like to focus on is not so much individual features but rather how these features collectively work to make Windows 8.1 enterprise-ready.

One of the big complaints about Windows 8 is that its touch-first user experiences are by definition slight antagonistic in the 1.4 billion non-touch PCs that are out there in the real world today. This is a fair complaint, as are related concerns that Metro UIs like the Charms, Switcher interface, and Start screen keep popping up in front of users who do nothing but use desktop applications.  So I was intrigued to discover that Microsoft is working on two paradoxically opposite goals in Windows 8.1. First, those with tablets and other touch machines will need to see less of the desktop, thanks to more and more Control Panel settings being moved into the Metro PC Settings interface. And second, Windows 8.1 is designed to help those who use the desktop primarily (on traditional PCs) see less of Metro; you can boot directly to the desktop, bypassing the Start screen, for example. And you can configure the renewed Start button to display a customizable list of all your apps instead of the Start screen and live tiles.

Other features in Windows 8.1 are aimed, generally speaking, at ending the friction of using Metro interfaces for work, and this is particularly important in Windows RT, where you cannot install external desktop utilities and applications. So Windows 8.1 will include integrated support for SkyDrive sync, better in-box VPN support (including third party VPNs), integrated management capabilities, not just for Windows Intune, but for third party management solutions, and a new feature called Work Folders that will allow enterprise users to sync their file share-based document libraries to the device a la SkyDrive or SkyDrive Pro. The basic printing capabilities available via Metro today are being enhanced with NFC tap to pair and Wi-Fi Direct printing. And Wi-Fi remote display is being augmented with Miracast wireless display support. There’s just more there.

New Feature: Assigned Access

A new feature called Assigned Access sounds silly on the surface: It lets you configure a PC to run only a single Metro-style app, where the user cannot access system files and other apps. But this feature was driven by the needs of the education market as well as certain vertical businesses. Imagine a show floor retail employee where the ability to access Facebook, the web, or whatever could be problematic. Or a call center employee who literally needs to do one task. (Need more than one app? Look into AppLocker.) Suddenly, a system that was entirely unsuitable in certain situations is now ideal.

Mobile device management functionality is getting a significant boost in this release as well. With Windows 8 and RT, you were basically stuck with basic Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) or the mobile device managements capabilities of Windows Intune. In 8.1, Windows has been updated to support a new open version of the management interfaces that will be explicitly supported by Airwatch and Mobile Iron, and can be adopted by any device management infrastructure. No agent is required: It’s just built-in. And because Windows 8.1 supports Remote Business Data Removal, you can decommission devices on the fly and securely remove corporate data while leaving the user’s personal documents, photos, and other data untouched. Perfect for today’s BYOD world.

Proactive Guidance for Windows 8

With these and the other improvements outlined in that article In Blue: Business Features in Windows 8.1 post, Microsoft is suddenly getting a bit more proactive in its guidance for Windows 8.

First, businesses still on Windows XP need to migrate to modern OS, Microsoft says, and do so before the April 2014 end of support for that aging OS.

Business customers that are deploying Windows 7 should continue doing so, of course. But here’s the new bit: Microsoft says that these customers should now begin evaluating Windows 8 for business tablets as well. And all customers should target touch devices on all form factors for their next hardware refresh. This means desktop PCs as well as portable devices.

A year ago, when Microsoft was talking about getting Windows 8 tablets out into the hands of certain business users, it sounded a bit quaint (and not a little bit crazy). But looking at the maturation in Windows 8.1, I wonder if we’re not suddenly turning the corner. This is a release that will satisfy user demands for hip, touch-oriented portable devices while meeting the management needs of any sized environment. It’s a release that is respectful of the environment—desktop or Metro—you prefer to work in, and it comes with a startlingly long list of new business features.

Suddenly, Windows 8 doesn’t look so crazy after all.

 

Networking and mobile productivity

NFC tap-to-pair printing. The keynote demo for this one actually failed because of the density of wireless traffic (the printer was Wi-Fi-based) but Windows 8.1 will include NFC tap-to-pair printing: Just add an NFC tag on your existing printers to enable.

Wi-Fi Direct printing. Windows 8.1 adds compatibility for printers with Wi-Fi Direct capabilities.

Miracast wireless display. Windows 8.1-based devices will be able to project their display wirelessly to Miracast-compatible monitors and screens.

Mobile broadband. Windows 8.1 devices can have embedded wireless radios that provide better power savings, longer battery life, and enable thinner form factors and lower cost devices.

Broadband tethering. Any Internet-connected Windows 8.1-based device can be turned into a wireless hotspot with support for up to 10 devices.

VPN improvements. Windows 8.1 will automatically prompt you to sign into the built-in VPN when an app or other resource needs to access a resource that requires that kind of connection. This capability will be extended to third party VPNs as well.

Internet Explorer 11. The next version of IE provides “faster page load times, side-by-side browsing of your sites, 3D graphics, enhanced pinned site notifications, reading view and app settings like favorites, tabs and settings sync across all your Windows 8.1 PCs.”

Device and mobility security

Improvements to access control. Windows 8.1 will support devices with fingerprint-based biometrics and simpler access to multi-factor authentication for virtual smart cards.

Improvements to malware resistance. Windows Defender is being augmented with network behavior monitoring to help detect and stop known and unknown malware before it can run. Internet Explorer 11 will scan binary extensions like ActiveX before potentially harmful code is executed.

Workplace Join. The ability to join an Active Directory domain has been added to the Metro-based PC Settings interface: Just type in your user name and password. You can also optionally enable device management.

Work Folders. Essentially SkyDrive or SkyDrive Pro for your corporate data folders, this feature lets you sync key folders in your servers to you PC so that the contained documents are available when you’re offline.

New policies. Many new group policies have been added so that admins can control such things as the layout of tiles on users’ Start screens, ensure that key apps are available, and prevent users from customizing the Start screen.

Device and mobility control

Assigned Access. This is the ability to run a single Metro-style app in a kiosk mode that I’ve written about previously. Enabling this feature turns on a predefined set of filters that blocks other actions so the user only experiences the specified application and is unable to access system files and other applications, Microsoft says.

Windows 8.1 Embedded 8.1 Industry. A coming version of the Embedded version of Windows will include additional device lockdown capabilities.

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