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Microsoft's Windows Virtual Desktop spring refresh: What's new and next

Microsoft is ready to roll out its 'spring refresh' of WVD, while working on a grander plan to make WVD more of a full-fledged cloud-managed desktop.

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Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft is ready to start rolling out several new Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) features as part of its spring refresh. And while these features are fairly incremental, the WVD team is working towards making WVD more of a true "cloud PC" in the not-too-distant future.

Microsoft made the first version of WVD generally available on September 30, 2019. WVD provides Windows 10 virtualization, along with multi-session Windows 10 capabilities and support for Windows Server RDS desktop and apps. WVD will allow users to virtualize Windows 7 and 10, Microsoft 365 apps for the enterprise (formerly known as Office 365 ProPlus apps) and other third-party applications by running them remotely in Azure virtual machines. 

As a result of the increase in users working remotely over the past few months due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, demand for WVD has been even higher than Microsoft hoped or expected. Three weeks ago, Microsoft officials said WVD usage had tripled (from some not-publicly-released number). Currently, there are six times more users of WVD than Microsoft expected to have by the end of 2020.

Today, April 30, Microsoft highlighted three WVD features coming in May 2020 -- all listed on its Microsoft 365 roadmap -- that will constitute the spring refresh. These features have been in testing among a group of private preview customers and will be going straight to general availability starting next month.

Microsoft is improving the WVD management experience by enabling WVD deployment through the Azure Portal. This will allow users to set up host pools, manage apps and desktops and assign users all from within the portal. The company will be adding better Microsoft Teams support from WVD using A/V redirection for video calling, which officials say will improve the video and audio experience. And Microsoft will be adding location choice for their service data for compliance and sovereignty purposes. Service metadata can be distributed across the U.S. and Europe, to start, with more regions "coming soon."

Microsoft made much of another WVD feature, known as MSIX App Attach, late last year, but that feature remains in private preview and there's no update as to when it will be generally available. Microsoft's original plan was to enable MSIX App Attach on the Windows 10 side as part of Windows 10 20H1/2004, but right now that seems unlikely, as that feature update for Windows is on the cusp of rolling out. App Attach enables MSIX-packaged applications to be stored outside a virtual machine so that each application can attach itself when users need it. It's a step beyond traditional app layering and app streaming, according to Microsoft execs, and is a key piece of Microsoft's strategy to separate user data, apps and the underlying operating system

Will there be a "fall update" for WVD, similar to the way there are regular spring and fall updates to Windows 10? Microsoft 365 Corporate Vice President Brad Anderson told me that's not the plan. Microsoft will add new WVD features on a rolling basis, once they're ready to go, he said.

So what comes next for WVD? Anderson, understandably, didn't want to tip his hand. He did say that when and if working and learning from home restrictions ease, he still expects demand for WVD to accelerate, not diminish.

"There's a need for users to work on any device, anywhere in the world. There's a change in how working remotely is viewed. It's permanent," Anderson said. "And the ability to spin up and down capacity on demand is increasing in importance."

Microsoft's goal is to make "the PC in the cloud a first-class citizen," he said. "It needs to be as fast, productive and secure in the home as it is in the office," he added. (And it needs to be cloud-managed, as in a true "cloud managed desktop," it seems.)

Microsoft's work on improving Teams' performance in WVD seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. It sounds like the company is working to improve other key apps' performance in WVD, as well. 

Microsoft also announced some additional device-management news today. As of today, Microsoft is extending the ability to use Azure Active Directory single sign-on with as many apps as users would like across all pricing tiers, including Azure AD Free. This is part of the company's work to ensure all users take advantage of multifactor authentication for security purposes.

Microsoft is adding more features to Microsoft Endpoint Manager -- the new unified branding for both Configuration Manager and Intune. Tenant attach will allow users to quickly attach an Intune tenant to a Configuration Management deployment. The Intune MDM agent for macOS is available, and a new feature aimed at preventing cross-account sharing in Outlook Mobile is coming to Intune, as well, for both iOS and Android.