Later this year we’ll see a major update to Windows 8, called Windows 8.1 and codenamed “Blue”, with a Preview version releasing June 26. This update will include numerous new and enhanced features, many of which are targeted towards business users and the enterprise environment. As I’ll discuss, you’ll find improvements with usability, networking, management, and security.
Although you still can’t get rid of the new Start Screen, it will be possible to optionally boot to the traditional Desktop—in case you aren’t a fan of the titles and metro-style interface. And there will be a Start button added back to the Desktop. However, the actual Start Menu will still be missing and the button just takes you to the Start Screen. But Microsoft promises improved mouse and keyboard navigation throughout.
The new metro-style interfaces also will have many enhancements. The Lock Screen can automatically display photos like a screen saver, there are more Start Screen personalization settings, and there’s an improved search experience.
You’ll also find usability improvements in Internet Explorer 11, like faster page load times, side-by-side browsing, enhanced pinned site notifications, and syncing of app settings like favorites, tabs and settings among other Windows 8.1 devices.
There are many networking and management updates that will make Windows 8.1 devices more bring-your-own-device (BYOD) friendly:
- Workplace Join gives IT admins more granular control over the corporate resources users have access to and device enforcement parameters when joining the domain.
- Work Folders adds automatic native syncing of files among a user’s storage on the corporate network and their devices, even without the devices being joined to the domain.
- Mobile device management (MDM) improvements allow IT admins to more easily manage Windows 8.1 devices with MDM products like Mobile Iron or Air Watch via an OMA-DM API agent. Plus deeper policy management is provided for Windows RT devices and Windows 8.1 PCs can be managed as mobile devices without having to deploy a full client.
- Web Application Proxy will be a new role service in the Windows Server Remote Access role, allowing IT admins to more easily publish and control access to corporate resources via multi-factor authentication conditional access policies for the user identity and device.
There will be many mobility enhancements in Windows 8.1 as well:
- Miracast wireless display support will allow users to easily wirelessly protect to Miracast-enabled projectors via through Bluetooth or NFC.
- Mobile broadband improvements now enable Windows 8.1 to fully support embedded wireless radios, offering power savings and enabling even smaller and lower cost form factors of devices.
- Broadband tethering support allows users to turn their mobile broadband-enabled PC or tablet into a personal Wi-Fi hotspot, offering wireless Internet to other devices.
- NFC tap-to-pair printing enables users to simply tap their Windows 8.1 device against an enterprise NFC-enabled printer to set it up on their device. And for those printers without built-in NFC, admins can simply attach a NFC tag to enable the functionality
- Wi-Fi Direct printing is also supported and will allow users to print to Wi-Fi Direct-enabled printers without installing additional drivers or software on their Windows 8.1 device.
There are also some great security-related improvements to Windows 8.1:
- VPN support has been improved for Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 RT devices, supporting a wider range of VPN clients and allowing third-party apps to automatically initiate VPN connections
- Remote data controls are improved, allowing corporations more control over what content on a user’s device is marked as corporate-owned, encrypted, and able to be remotely wiped if they loose their device or leave the corporation.
- Biometrics support is enhanced, offering user authentication via biometric identity throughout Windows, like for Windows login, User Account Control, Windows Store access, remote access, and more. Plus users will experience a common fingerprint enrollment process no matter the type of touch or swipe reader that’s used.
- Encryption will be available in all editions of Windows 8.1 and automatically enabled when using a Microsoft account, which will be similar to the encryption found in existing Windows RT and Windows Phone 8 devices. And for the Pro and Enterprise editions, there are performance improvements to BitLocker encryption.
- Internet Explorer 11 will allow deeper antivirus access, enabling better scanning of the activities of browser extensions (like ActiveX), in addition to usability improvements like faster page load times, side-by-side browsing, enhanced pinned site notifications, and syncing of app settings like favorites, tabs and settings.
- Windows Defender will include network behavior monitoring to help detect and stop even more malware.
- Assigned Access allows a device to be locked for use by a single Windows Store app, available in Windows 8.1 Pro, Enterprise, and RT, which is great for application-specific devices, devices offered for public use, or even devices for kids in an educational environment.
You’ll see many usability, networking, management, and security improvements in Windows 8.1. Getting around the interfaces with a keyboard and mouse should be a bit easier. Features like Workplace Join and Work Folders make it easier for end-users to use their own devices, while MDM and Web Application Proxy improvements allow admins to better control their access. Wireless improvements make wireless protection, printing, and sharing easier. Plus updates for VPN, Internet Explorer, antivirus, biometrics, remote data control, encryption and the new Assigned Access feature make Windows 8.1 more secure.
Try out Windows 8.1 for yourself with the Preview version releasing June 26.