Despite all the talk about returning the Start button with the next version of Windows 8, when the Windows 8.1 upgrade becomes available later this year it will be chock-full of features designed for enterprises, Microsoft says.
These include support for wirelessly connecting devices to standards-based display screens, using Windows 8.1 devices as hot spots and support for mobile broadband, according to the keynote address at Microsoft's user conference TechEd 2013 North America in New Orleans. Windows 8.1 will be generally available later this year, but no specific date was given.
When it becomes available in beta June 26, Windows 8.1 will enable devices with mobile broadband wireless radios, says Iain McDonald, partner director of project management for Windows core. These devices can be tethered to up to 10 other devices to act as a mobile hot spot. After eight devices, though, the access gets slow, he says.
It also supports a form of network access control in which IT can set policies about users, the machines they are using and the network over which they are communicating in order to restrict access.
So users have to ID themselves, which can be done using two-factor authentication. Then depending on the type of machine or whether it's corporate or user-owned, policies can dictate whether it can access network resources and which network resources it can access. Depending on the type of network being used for access -- corporate private network, the Internet -- policies can be set on the type of resources available.
If users log in from their own devices, they must submit the machine to corporate management. Data and apps downloaded during corporate sessions can be wiped without affecting personal data on the machines. These wipes can be triggered by corporate IT or the user.
Windows 8.1 ads wireless Miracast support as well. Devices based on Windows 8.1 could communicate via Miracast with, for example, a large conference room display screen so a PowerPoint on the device can be shown to a roomful of people.
It will also support near-field communication (NFC) connections to printers, so a Windows 8.1 device can print to a local printer so long as it, too, supports NFC. The demo of this capability failed during the keynote.
For businesses using Windows 8.1 and Windows Server it is possible to create Start screen images that can be deployed to individual devices. A start screen containing icons for the standard set of work applications can be created, export a file containing that layout information to Windows Server and then redeploy it to individual machines. This can also be used to quickly restore a version of a start screen when a user changes it but can't figure out how to get back to an earlier version.
The new version of the OS supports application-specific VPNs, so if a VPN is required for accessing a financial application, the app can be written so it's capable of setting up its own VPN without setting up a VPN for the entire system, he says.
The new OS will support displaying two applications at a time, each occupying half the screen and each fully active. Windows 8 today supports snapped applications in which one app occupies three quarters of the screen and is the active app while the other -- the snapped app -- is shown in the other quarter of the screen. The snapped application can be dragged over to become the active app.
The user interface includes the option to make more different tile sizes than the current interface, notably smaller ones. Users will also be able to put a picture as wallpaper behind their start screens rather than the single color backdrop available now.
McDonald announced that apps running on Windows 8 will also run on Windows 8.1. He promised security upgrades that are "offensive in nature" rather than strictly defensive but said he'd detail exactly what they are later.
However, during subsequent demonstrations in the keynote, presenters showed encryption of data on Windows 8.1 devices as well as support for two-factor authentication such as smartcards and fingerprint ID.
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