June 28, 2013, 1:07 PM — The Windows 8.1 Preview launched yesterday with much fanfare at Microsoft's Build conference in San Francisco. On the other side of the planet, meanwhile, Microsoft was kicking off TechEd Europe, where it revealed the features and benefits of Windows 8.1 for business users.
The upcoming free update includes a massive number of tweaks and new features. Many of them--such as the ability to swipe your hand in front of a webcam to turn pages, and the ability to wirelessly stream media to a TV via an Xbox game console--are aimed exclusively at consumers.
Some of the new features, however, will also appeal to business users: The return of the Start button, for instance, and the ability to boot straight to desktop mode. I've never really understood or supported the brouhaha over the missing Start button in Windows 8, but I must say that I'm a fan of having it back. It's so much more convenient to be able to right-click the Start button to access the Control Panel or Task Manager, or to shut down the PC.
Windows 8.1 for IT admins
Microsoft has also developed a number of features and improvements designed specifically for business customers, and to help IT admins deploy and manage Windows 8 devices. John DeVaan, corporate vice president for Windows Development at Microsoft, shared the business-centric aspects of Windows 8.1 at a keynote at TechEd Europe 2013.
The Start button, booting directly to desktop, and some of the other elements of Windows 8.1 are great for business users as well, but there are two things in particular that IT admins will appreciate: First, Windows 8.1 lets IT admins control the layout of the Windows 8.1 Start screen. Second, the new Assigned Access mode lets businesses lock down a Windows 8.1 device, so that it can only run only a single designated app.
Some companies are stricter than others about how much autonomy users have to customize and make Windows their own. Controlling the Start screen layout isn't a purely draconian control, though. A consistent interface helps users work more efficiently, and makes it easier for IT support personnel to manage and troubleshoot user issues.
Microsoft also threw in some features for managing Windows 8.1 mobile devices. IT admins can remotely wipe sensitive data from Windows 8.1 devices, and Microsoft has worked to integrate Windows 8.1 management with many leading MDM (mobile device management) platforms.
At TechEd Europe, Microsoft also unveiled updates to the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) related to Windows 8.1. Application Virtualization 5.0 SP2 (App-V 5.0 SP2), and User Experience Virtualization 2.0 (UE-V 2.0) have both been updated with Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 in mind. UE-V 2.0 now supports Windows Store apps, and it enhances the way settings and applications sync across devices.
Windows 8.1 for business
At first blush, Windows 8.1 seems to be a dramatic improvement over Windows 8. Microsoft has addressed crucial complaints that have forced many businesses and consumers to avoid Windows 8, and it has added a variety of features and improvements that make Windows 8 a better operating system overall.
Will Windows 8.1 spark a mass migration to adopt the new Microsoft OS? Probably not. Businesses don't work that way. Even if businesses embrace Windows 8.1, it will take some time before the deployments catch up with that sentiment.
PCs--as in traditional desktop and laptop PCs--are declining in relevance. Many users do more personal computing on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Windows 8.1, however, straddles the line between PC and mobile--it provides a full Windows desktop experience on tablets, convertibles, and ultrabook hybrids.
Businesses will eventually move to Windows 8--and Windows 8.1--out of pure attrition. With Windows 8.1, though, Microsoft has given businesses many reasons to choose to switch now, rather than doing so under duress--kicking and screaming--only when there's no other option.