Is Windows 8.1 finally ready for corporate prime time? (Part 2)

by [Published on 13 May 2014 / Last Updated on 13 May 2014]

In this article we'll look at some of the tweaks that Microsoft has made to Windows 8 to make the OS more business-friendly.

If you would like to read the first part in this article series please go to Is Windows 8.1 finally ready for corporate prime time? (Part 1).

Introduction

In Part 1 of this two-part article, we took a look at Windows 8 – not so much from a technical point of view, but from a business analysis standpoint. Specifically, I wanted to delve into some of the reasons behind Windows 8’s so-called “failure” in the enterprise, and what Microsoft is doing in its attempts to fix that.

In this part, we are going to get technical again, and look at some of the tweaks that Microsoft has made to Windows 8, first with 8.1 and now with Update 1 for Windows 8.1, and how these changes make the new OS more business-friendly.

Windows 8: The business case

Windows 8 itself included some very useful new features for small business and enterprise users, including significantly faster startup – an obvious advantage in a “time is money” environment – and support for USB 3.0, which speeds up the transfer of data over USB devices. Another interesting new feature was Windows To Go, a feature unique to the enterprise edition that allows to OS to boot and run from USB flash drives or external USB hard drives. WTG was designed to let admins create imaged versions of Windows that could be controlled and managed using Group Policy.

Power management was improved, which could save businesses money, Storage Spaces made it easy to combine multiple hard drives into virtual drives, and we got better support for multiple monitors, which are in use in many work places. Enhanced security mechanisms made Windows 8 more secure than its predecessors, particularly in regard to bootkits.

Unfortunately, many business users and IT folks never got to the point of enjoying these improvements because they couldn’t see past the new user interface and the usability challenges it presented to desktop or laptop users with non-touch monitors – which still describes the majority of business users.

Windows 8.1: a (baby) step forward

In keeping with its announced plans to do away with the “big OS upgrade every three to five years” pattern of the past, Microsoft released a more incremental upgrade to Windows 8 just a few days short of a year after the release of Windows 8. Not a drastic enough change to warrant a whole new version number of its own, it was dubbed Windows 8.1.

The upgrade was a disappointment to many people. Arguably the number one user complaint about Windows 8 was the removal of the Start button from the desktop. Long-time Windows users were lost without it. This little navigational landmark was, after all, a pivotal feature of the last drastic interface overhaul that resulted in Windows 95 and was celebrated (to the tune of the Rolling Stones, no less) in the “Start Me Up” ad campaign that introduced that operating system.

Microsoft obviously heard the clamor for the return of the Start button and responded by bringing it back in Windows 8.1 – but they just as obviously didn’t really understand what the outcry was all about. The new Start button didn’t include what computer users really wanted: the Start menu. Instead, it just took you back to the new Start screen, leaving those without touch screens as frustrated as ever. The intended “solution” was the ability to go to the “All Apps” screen instead of the tiled Start screen, but that failed to placate most users. One welcome change was the ability to boot directly to the desktop, for those who wanted to bypass the Start screen altogether.

For those with touch-enabled computers, 8.1 made things better; app-snapping was improved, there were more options for resizing tiles, and apps worked better in portrait mode. More customization was allowed, so you could use the desktop background as the Start Screen background and you had more color options.

Under the hood, there were improvements to security, Remote Business Data Removal, Device Lockdown, intrusion detection for Windows Defender, better fingerprint recognition, transparent device encryption, and support for Windows Server 2012 R2’s “workplace join” feature. 8.1 also added support for 3D printing and Wi-Fi Direct. Other business-oriented changes included Work Folders, Open MDM for managing mobile devices, Remote Desktop Services/VDI enhancements, VPN improvements.

None of this was enough to satisfy consumers who wanted the familiar look and feel of Windows back or to lure companies into upgrading and undertaking the steep learning curve and inevitable productivity loss while users tried to acclimate themselves to living in a touch-based world (often without the benefit of touch screens).

Windows 8.1 Update 1: here’s where we are now

Microsoft didn’t wait a year this time. On April 8, less than six months after the release of Windows 8.1, we got Update 1, which added more new features and made a number of subtle changes to the interface. The update was a big one, over 700 MB to download and install. That release didn’t proceed without problems. First Microsoft announced that Update 1 would be required in order to get future security patches.

Then the next day, the company temporarily suspended the delivery of Update 1 to business customers when a problem was discovered with client computers that get their updates through Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), that prevented those computers from scanning for future updates.

Most of the interface changes are minor, but sometimes it’s the little things that matter a lot. The response to the update was mostly positive, although some complained that Microsoft is doling out the interface improvements too slowly, offering mere crumbs to user who want the experience to be a piece of cake.

Microsoft gave users the option, in Windows 8.1, to boot to the desktop, but with the update, they’ve gone further and now the OS detects whether it’s running on a tablet or a PC. If it’s a PC (desktop or laptop), it automatically boots to the desktop. This is as it should have been from the beginning. You can, of course, change that default if you want.

A big complaint about Windows 8 from the beginning was the difficulty of finding the shut down and restart options buried in the Settings menu. That’s fixed now on PCs, with a Power button added to the top of the Start screen, you can see next to the Search icon in Figure 1.

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Figure 1

This button gives you the option to sleep, shut down or restart. If you’re on the desktop, you can also find these options, along with “sign out,” in the menu that pops up when you right-click the bottom left “hot corner,” as shown in Figure 2.

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Figure 2

Note that the new Power button doesn’t appear on most tablet Start screens – unless the tablet has a large screen (greater than 8.5 inches) and doesn’t have connected standby. The premise here is that most tablets have a physical power button that’s easy to access (as compared to a PC’s power switch).

You might notice back in Figure 1 that there is also a Search button now. Previously, you could just start typing your search term anywhere on the Start screen, and you still can. But as convenient as that might have seemed to the UI designers, it wasn’t intuitive for users. Many people will be more comfortable with the Search button. Clicking it gets you a fly-out search box to type in. For folks like me who are a little OCD, having a defined place for everything is important, so I thank Microsoft for adding that.

Another nice little addition is that the modern (Store) apps you have open now appear in the taskbar along with your desktop applications. Many times in the past, I’ve had the experience of completely losing track of which modern apps were running since I spend most of my time in desktop mode. This goes a long way toward unifying the desktop and modern interfaces without one interfering with the other. As you can see in Figure 3, the modern Finance app has an icon on the desktop and you can preview it like a desktop app or close it with the X in the preview thumbnail.

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Figure 3

That’s not all. You can also pin Store apps to the taskbar just like desktop applications, which means you can open them without having to go back to the Start screen. That is definitely better for productivity and makes using Store apps a much more seamless (and attractive) proposition.

And if you don’t happen to want to see the Modern apps on the taskbar when they’re running, you can configure Windows not to show them, in the Taskbar and Navigation Properties dialog box, on the Taskbar tab.

Something that I really like is the way you can now access the taskbar from the Start screen, instead of having to go back to the desktop to do so. Just move your mouse pointer beyond the edge of the screen where you have the taskbar configured to display on the desktop. In other words, if it’s at the bottom, move it down past the bottom of the screen. If it’s at the left side, like mine, move the pointer off the screen to the left, and it will appear, as shown in Figure 4.

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Figure 4

Another nice change to the UI is the addition of the familiar Close and Minimize buttons in the top right corner of all modern (Store) apps, along with a title bar. Unfortunately, you still can’t resize Store apps to float in windows on the desktop, without installing Stardock’s Modern Mix.

On the Start screen, right clicking a tile now gives you the good old context menu that most people coming from other versions of Windows expect. As shown in Figure 5, this gives you options for pinning and unpinning the app to the Start screen and taskbar, uninstalling, resizing or turning the live tile on or off.

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Figure 5

If you’re using a mobile touch screen device, the behavior is different; you get the options in the bar along the bottom, as in previous iterations of Windows 8.

If you install a new app (or several), you’ll see a message at the lower left corner of the Start screen, telling you how many new apps have been installed. You can click the arrow beside it to get to the All Apps page, and there you’ll see that the new ones are highlighted, similarly to the way they were in the Windows 7 Start menu. Just in case that’s not enough of a clue, the word “NEW” appears next to the names in bright blue.

Sorting of apps has been improved. You can sort by name, date installed, most used or category, as shown in Figure 6.

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Figure 6

In keeping with the trend toward more customization, you can make the apps in the All Apps view smaller by going into Settings | Tiles and sliding the Show more apps in Apps view bar to Yes.

This makes it easier to see all (or most) of your apps at once if you have a lot of them installed, and in this way, actually gives you a better overview of your programs than the “old way” with the Start menu, as you can see in Figure 7.

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Figure 7

Business users who spend time in the modern UI, such as those with Windows 8.1 tablets, will appreciate some additions to that interface. You can now rename your computer or change your domain/workgroup from the PC and devices section of PC Settings, which is accessed from the Settings icon on the Charms bar. Microsoft also added back the informational fly-out in the Wi-Fi settings that let you show estimated data usage, set as a metered connection, or forget the current network (This was in Windows 8 but removed in 8.1; Update 1 brings it back).

Drag and drop has been improved on touch screens with the “tap twice and hold” gesture that highlights an object so you can drag and drop it.

The update also makes improvements to Internet Explorer 11, which we’ll discuss in a future article.

Summary

The changes made by Windows 8.1 Update 1 can’t be called drastic, but a lot of little things can add up to a big difference in user experience. I’ll confess: I’ve been using Windows 8 since its early betas but for getting my work done, on my desktop computer I have rarely ventured into the modern UI. I installed Start 8 and have been happily using Windows in much the same way I have since Windows 9x.

With Update 1, for the first time, I find myself actually going to the Start menu and actually running modern apps as a matter of everyday routine – not just for testing or writing about it. I think this update is taking Microsoft in the right direction with Windows client, and I think business users will be far less reluctant to take it on with these changes in place. We still aren’t where I’d like to be, but with the unveiling at BUILD of the new Start menu that blends the old look and feel with the modern, there is hope that we’ll get there soon. If we do, the Windows 8x OS may not end up being the failure that so many have already proclaimed it to be.

If you would like to read the first part in this article series please go to Is Windows 8.1 finally ready for corporate prime time? (Part 1).

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