Windows-8.1Some of my fellow “oldies but goodies” may remember a family sitcom from the late 1970s called “Eight is Enough.” Unfortunately for Microsoft™, that adage hasn’t proven true in regard to their latest operating system. After a wave of enthusiasm from testers and some rave reviews from pundits during the beta period, Windows 8 more or less fizzled. Sales have been less than spectacular on the consumer front, and according to a recent article on the Betanews.com web site, six months after the official launch only slightly more than one-half of one percent of enterprise computers were running Windows 8.

I’ve been using Windows 8 since early betas and overall, I like it. It’s faster and smoother and I appreciate tools like the new Task Manager as well as its enhanced support for multiple monitors. But I know I’m not the typical user. And although I like the touch-friendly UI on my Surface tablet, I sometimes find it frustrating when I’m working with my desktop system that has three large monitors that aren’t touch-enabled. The vast majority of business computers are still desktops without touch, so I can understand why they’re hesitant to upgrade.

Now Microsoft is heavily marketing the first major update, Windows 8.1, to businesses. Many of the new features seem designed to appeal to enterprise customers. Will it be enough to win companies over?  Or will Windows 7 turn into the new XP, with companies hanging onto it for a decade?

At TechEd 2013 in New Orleans, Microsoft revealed the details about new and improved features that will come with the Windows 8.1 update (formerly known by its code name “Blue”). Some of those features are more focused on consumers while others will appeal to business users, making them more productive in the office and on the road.

By now, everyone knows that Windows 8.1 brings back the Start button on the desktop – but not the Start menu. The button will take you back to the Windows 8 Start screen, which can be configured to display the All Apps screen instead of the live tiles for those who prefer it. While this falls short of what many “8 haters” were hoping for, it should make the learning curve slightly less steep for users who are encountering the new operating system for the first time – and in the business world, that means fewer help desk calls.

Another much-asked-for addition to Windows 8.1 is the ability to configure settings so that the computer will boot directly to the desktop, without installing a third party application. Business users, especially, may prefer to bypass the Windows 8 tiled Start screen and spend most of their computing time in the more familiar Windows desktop environment, and this makes it easier to do that.

The improvements to VPN functionality will benefit business users, as now Windows 8.1 will automatically prompt them to log into the VPN if an app needs to access resources that are accessed through the VPN. That applies to third party VPNs, too.  And users who are traveling on business will appreciate the ability to easily turn their Windows 8.1 laptops/tablets into wi-fi hotspots to which they can tether their phones or additional tablets and laptops to share a single Internet connection.

IT admins will appreciate the new “workplace join” feature that gives them more fine-tuned control over resources on the company network and users will like that it allows them to work from more of their devices. It works by providing a way to register devices that aren’t full-fledged domain members so that they get access to needed resources without compromising IT’s control. In addition, devices that aren’t domain members can now sync with file shares located on the corporate network through the Work Folders feature and IT can enforce Dynamic Access Control policies and Rights Management.

For those companies deploying a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), Windows 8.1 has made improvements to the VDI user experience. It’s now faster, RemoteApps behave more like local apps, and multiple monitor support has been improved.

Perhaps most important of all for businesses, there are a number of improvements to security features baked into Windows 8.1. The new version of IE (11) has a new antimalware scanning capability of binary extensions such as ActiveX before executing the code and Windows Defender gets network behavior monitoring to help better detect malware.

Businesses will be able to wipe corporate data from a user’s device without wiping personal data, which is important in this BYOD era. Assigned Access allows you to set up particular devices for a specific purpose and lock them down to run a single app, which can be useful in a kiosk environment and other situations. Biometric (fingerprint) support has been improved, too, to work with Windows logon, remote access, UAC and so forth).

That’s a hefty basket of goodies to attempt to lure companies into upgrading (and there are more, such as NFC printing and Wi-Fi direct printing and wireless projection). What Microsoft didn’t include, despite user pleas (the old-style Start menu) can be added with third party solutions such as Start 8 to make the upgrade transition easier for users. However, many companies have fallen into an “every other new OS” pattern of upgrading after skipping Windows Vista and going directly from XP to Windows 7.  Will they see Windows 8.1 as enough of a “new” OS to fit into that pattern?  When Windows 8.1 is released this fall, we’ll begin to find out.

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