Last week's Windows 8.1 announcement focused on top-level changes for consumers, but there are also alterations aimed more squarely at business users. Here are five of the key changes highlighted at TechEd North America 2013.
Most of these features were presented by Australian Iain McDonald, who works as partner director of program management for Microsoft. They're likely to take a while to roll out; the preview version of Windows 8.1 won't appear until 26 June, and organisations are unlikely to adopt the new release until after the final candidate appears later this year.
Alluding indirectly to the focus on the partial reintroduction of the Start button in Windows 8.1, McDonald noted that every change made to such a widely-used platform was controversial. "There are people now we're releasing Windows 8.1 not liking that we've taken things out, and others not liking that we've put things back in."
One feature highlighted in last week's announcement was a change to the way apps are added to and moved around the start screen. "One of the things we've heard feedback on in Windows 8 is that it's a little easy to mess up your Start screen tiles," McDonald said. Windows 8.1 handles that by letting you long-press or right-click on the tile, which brings up a Customize icon you use to make alterations.
That's a helpful improvement, but more significant for business users is the ability to create a pre-defined layout of tiles and then apply that across multiple machines. Once you've created a master layout, you can export it as an XML file using a PowerShell command, and then apply that to specific user profiles.
Windows 8.1 adds the ability to tether Windows devices to a mobile phone — handy if there's no Wi-Fi around. "Wi-Fi is not as cheap as in America [everywhere else] and we know that a lot of people want to be able to use mobile broadband to connect, so we've simplified the way to tether," McDonald said. The feature supports up to 10 connections, though performance is often poor with more than 8, McDonald noted.
Miracast and NFC support
Windows 8.1 adds support for the wireless MiraCast standard, making it easier to connect devices to external displays. It introduces a performance lag which makes it unlikely you'd use it for your everyday connection, but it's a potentially useful option for conference rooms. There is also built-in support for NFC pairing to enterprise printers.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) remain one of the most common ways to protect corporate data, but implementation is often fiddly. "We've built in the ability for app writers to go and build in a VPN directly into the system and build it in directly to their apps," McDonald said. "Rather than having a system-wide VPN, the app writer can go and do that."
Windows 8.1 Industry Edition
In retail and education environments, it's sometimes desirable to create a system which only runs a single app. (Think setting an exam, demonstrating a product or running an entertainment system on a plane.) The Windows Embedded group will be producing a version of Windows 8.1 know as Industry Edition, which can be locked down to run a single app and also more tightly configured to prevent unexpected usage.