Microsoft has confirmed what many business users had hoped were accurate rumors — that a Start Button and boot-straight-to-desktop option are going to be baked into Windows 8.1, the client release of Windows codenamed "Blue."
But that's not all the company is doing to try to win more business customers over to Windows Blue. On June 3, the opening day of its TechEd North America conference, Microsoft officials also showed off other management, networking and security features that will be part of the Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1 releases.
Microsoft introduced a handful of business-focused features when it rolled out Windows 8 in October 2012. Among those were things like Windows To Go, BitLocker drive encryption, and DirectAccess networking support. But those weren't enough to sway many business users who were either still clinging to (or stuck with) Windows XP or already in the midst of Windows 7 deployments.
The new Windows 8.1 business features are no guaranteed magnet for business users, either, IDC analyst Al Gillen noted.
"New features are useless if customers don't want to use the product in the first place," Gillen said. There's no one killer feature Microsoft could or should add to Windows 8.1 to convince business users to jump to it, he said, as there's a lot of business momentum continuing around Windows 7.
Microsoft business users which are adding a lot of tablets to their IT mix may be more inclined to look at Windows 8 and its successors, Gillen noted, given that the latest Windows release continues to be optimized for tablets and touch.
That said, Microsoft isn't simply resting on its Windows 7 business laurels, especially because more and more of the workforce is doing at least some work from outside the office. Microsoft's goal is to make it so that Windows 8.1 will work better on both touch and non-touch devices, said Erwin Visser, General Manager, Windows Commercial
Microsoft is promising that any device running Windows 8 will able to run Windows 8.1 with no compatibility problems. "Any app that works now on Windows 8 will continue to work on Windows 8.1," Visser said.
Microsoft isn't going so far as with Windows 8.1 as adding domain-join support for Windows RT 8.1 devices, Visser acknowledged. It is, however, adding some other incremental functionality to the product to make it more appealing to business users.
On the networking front, new Blue features include:
- NFC tap-to-pair printing: Users can tap a Windows 8.1 device against an enterprise NFC-enabled printer and print. There's no need to buy a special printer; users can attach a NFC tag to your existing machines.
- Wi-Fi Direct printing: Users can connect to Wi-Fi Direct printers without adding additional drivers or software.
- Native Miracast wireless display compatibility: No extra dongles needed; users can project content to a Miracast-enabled device by pairing the device through Bluetooth or NFC.
- Broadband tethering: Users can tether Windows 8.1 mobile broadband-enabled PCs or tablets into a personal Wi-Fi hotspot.
- Auto-triggered VPN: When apps or resources need access through an inbox VPN, Windows 8.1 will automatically prompt users to sign in with one click. This feature will work with Microsoft and third-party inbox VPN clients.
In the security area, Blue will add:
- More authentication options: Support for fingerprint-based biometric devices and virtual smart cards for multi-factor authentication.
- Additional Defender and IE functionality: Network behavior monitoring added to Windows Defender, Microsoft's built-in antivirus product. Internet Explorer 11 will scan binary extensions (e.g. ActiveX) using the anti-malware solution before potentially harmful code is executed.
In terms of management, new Blue featues include:
- Start Screen lock-down for company-issued devices: IT can control the layout of these machines' Start Screens and prevent user customization across individual workgroups or the entire company.
- Remote business data removal: Allows IT to wipe corporate data while leaving users' personal data intact on user-purchased devices running Windows 8.1.
- Open MDM support: New Open Mobile Alliance Device Management (OMA-DM) capabilities are built into the OS and enable mobile device management using third-party MDM solutions, such as MobileIron or AirWatch, with no additional agent required.
- Workplace Join: New feature ensuring that only registered and trusted devices are allowed to access secured enterprise data.
- Assigned Access: The ability to lock down a machine so that users can use only a specific Windows Store application for a set period of time. A customer service application or a particular learning app for kids are the targets for this scenario.
Most, if not all, of these new features will be included in the Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1 public previews which Microsoft is releasing on June 26. The final versions of Windows 8.1 are expected to be released to manufacturing later this summer, according to sources. Microsoft officials have said publicly that Windows 8.1 will be available before the end of 2013.