One of the key presentations at TechEd 2013 has to do with Windows 8.1, formerly code-named Windows Blue. This is also the coming out party for the new small 8.1-inch-class Windows tablets. The promise is the same user interface and same apps on devices that range from 8.1 inches to 30 inches and beyond, coupled with the same management tools and, as a result, an easier transition for both companies and users between the different form factors. A great deal hinges on this product, as it represents what was at one time the core of Microsoft. It is still considered one of the company’s most critical product areas.
Currently, Microsoft is reporting 100 million licenses sold, 250 million app downloads, and 70,000 different Windows 8. The customer list of companies includes firms like British Telecom, Emirates Airlines and eBay, who have apparently moved aggressively to the platform. The number of licenses, while impressive, doesn’t relate to actual deployments and currently the market is having trouble accepting this product. Windows 8.1 hits a number of the pain points from Windows 8 and I’ll cover that progress below.
The presentation next moved to a showcase of apps developed by various companies. First up was a nice app by Bank of America for customers. Compared to what my own credit union supplies, this was impressively advanced. It has a single-page active tile view of account features and balances and can move between services. This was followed by another banking app, from a European bank, that created a similar but more attractive offering that used pictures along with data for a similar customer experience.
Next was an app by SAP, which gives a list of customers, allowing quick drill downs for individual sales performance, disputes, and purchase orders in process in a single view. This was followed by an app by Baker Hughes, which created an app that provided a breakdown of oil rigs managed; drill downs showcased drilling activity, impact of production on oil prices by each segment, and other rig-specific information.
As with all point updates, this is a free upgrade to Windows 8. TechEd is an enterprise event, so the information is enterprise focused. Improvements are broken down into five pillars: best business tablet, Windows apps for business, enterprise-grade security, empowered BYOD, and mobility for the enterprise.
As with most point releases, one of the key focus areas is to assure backward compatibility to 8.0.
Best Tablet Experience
With 8.1, the UI experience has been altered so you can either live in the new UI or the old desktop depending on your needs, the apps you use, and what is ideal for the device. This doesn’t just benefit small screens but large ones as well. For instance, on very large monitors or multiple screens, with 8.1, you can have multiple windows open under the new interface (something you could only do on the old desktop interface previously). Search has been significantly enhanced and now searches automatically not only local resources but connected resources as well. Assigned access is a new business feature that allows the enterprise to specify the application into which a user boots. This could allow a company to provide tablets to customers, employees or students that lock them into a specific application. For instance, a tablet for inventory would only boot into that inventory app, both assuring its intended use and simplifying support for it.
For apps, Microsoft is going to provide a deeper dive at the Microsoft Build conference in a few weeks (I’ll be there).
Mobility for the enterprise, the next pillar, started with connectivity. One of the biggest problems is connecting to projectors. Using NFC, or near-field communications, Windows 8.1 can tap to connect to a projector (either with the capability installed or one with a Miracast external interface). The pairing is both wireless (no dongles) and automatic. There is a similar approach to connecting to printers (for those still using paper). Microsoft has added mobile hotspot capability to Windows 8.1 devices, so if you have one that has a network connection (say either a 4G wireless connection or that one wired connection in the room), you can then turn it into a wireless access point. Direct Access is a new feature that provides an automatic business-class VPN for those devices and there will also be in-box third-party VPN clients. On top of this, these clients can be auto-triggered and for those apps that require a VPN connection too, it can be automated. Finally, device portability has been improved, allowing you to move apps and files nearly automatically between devices. If one breaks, or you buy a new one, migration time is down to minutes.
Empowering BYOD was the next section covered in the presentation. Windows To Go is likely one of the most powerful and least-known Windows 8 capabilities (I met with an OEM desktop group recently who had apparently never heard of it, for instance). This allows you to put a Windows 8 instance on a USB drive and boot off the drive, supplying the user’s unique secure environment to any Windows 8-compliant PC immediately. MDM (Mobile Device Management) is built into the product and it is based on open standards so that the devices can be managed by both Microsoft and third-party management tools. Workplace Join allows any Windows 8.1 device to be joined to a Windows Server R2 environment securely by the user using multi-factor authentication.
Security improvements that were already built into Windows 8 have improved security by a factor of six over Windows 7 and 30 times over Windows XP. The OS better connects with hardware security technology (like encrypted hard drives and Intel’s Deep Safe), and it is far more resistant to malware, particularly root kits. Microsoft now supports virtual smartcards, turning the device into a second security factor.
With Windows 8, Microsoft’s approach was mostly defensive. With Windows 8.1, Microsoft moves to offense. One area is that 8.1 actively scans downloaded files looking for bad behavior. The OS actively looks for malware and hostile behavior and automatically both notifies the user and executes corrective behavior. With the proper hardware in place, encryption is enabled automatically. Microsoft has found a way to massively reduce the cost of biometrics hardware and it will be driven as a standard on 8.1 devices as a result. It will actively assure Certificate Reputation to find and remediate problems associated with compromised certificates.
Wrapping Up: Most Important
Of all the improvements, it is the security component that stands out as the most compelling. Not only is Windows 8 naturally more secure than the OS that came before (because attackers write for the platforms in high volume like XP first), but it has a number of long overdue improvements like built-in two-factor authentication and affordable biometrics. IT will undoubtedly find these changes compelling but it is the users that drive OS cycles and it will be critical they find reasons to move to this new platform as well in order to drive volume and migrations. Fortunately, the new hardware looks good and Google is struggling with security and Apple largely with Google and Samsung, so Microsoft has a shot. We’ll see how this all plays out with users when Windows 8.1 and the new hardware come together in a few months.