Barely six months since the release of Windows 8 and Microsoft has announced an update with Windows 8.1. Currently in preview it is scheduled to be ready for release later this year. With Windows 8 Microsoft had to address a massive market shift towards touch whilst continuing to support the enormous Windows ecosystem of applications that we all rely upon. They did this very well but there were a few missteps and Windows 8.1 sets out to rectify those and go further in order to attract the valuable enterprise customer.

So can Windows 8.1 attract the enterprise client audience?

8.1 Showpieces

The “Start button” is back, and although not like the Start of old, it is customisable so that users can find the style that works for them. Unless they really want the old “Start menu” in which case they will remain disappointed. In addition there is now the option to have 8.1 start in desktop mode rather than the “Start screen”. This will certainly be welcome by those who use Windows primarily for traditional PC applications. One can see though how confusing the “Start” issue could be to users.

There are a number of UI changes which give Windows 8.1 a more mature feel as if Microsoft have had a chance to refine the Windows 8 experience. Some changes are to help users running on non-touch hardware such as moving the charms (the icons for search, share, start, devices and settings that appear on the right of the screen) on larger screens closer to the corner where your mouse is. Such changes will be important to enterprises who will be running large numbers of non-touch PCs.

There is improved multiple monitor support including mixed scaling factors to get the most out of larger screens and search has been altered to inherently search everything (online, local files and apps). App specific searches move back inside the App rather than having to activate the charm which was unintuitive. The lock screen can now cycle photos from the Cloud, more settings are available in the Modern UI and new applications install into ‘All Apps’ and not the Start screen to reduce clutter.

With 8.1, Microsoft wants users to “see the desktop only when you need to” and “leave the desktop only when you want to”. In other words, the company wants to give parity to both modes.

Brushing up the enterprise appeal

Microsoft say that all of these changes have been driven by usage data and user group testing done since Windows 8 went live. Whilst these UI changes will suit all types of user, Microsoft is very keen to give 8.1 Enterprise appeal. With so many organisations facing the end of Windows XP support and having to make the choice between moving to Windows 7 or Windows 8, Microsoft wants 8.1 to be the obvious choice. As such they have done a lot of work to address core Enterprise concerns.

They continue to promote that any application that runs on Windows 7 will run on the Windows 8 desktop but add that 8.1 is the better option with regards to performance, security, connectivity and manageability. Of course that does not provide a reason to choose 8.1 over the far more established (some might say stable) Windows 7. Microsoft therefore needed to go further.

A key area is the management of both devices and apps. With 8.1, Windows Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012 R2 (both in preview) and InTune, enterprises gain greater control over their Windows devices. They can set and lock what apps appear on the Start screen and by partitioning the storage location, business data can be wiped from a device whilst leaving personal data untouched.

Connectivity improvements include ‘Workplace Join’ which allows basic Domain join style functionality whereby users can get network benefits such as access to files and devices whilst IT gets control over the device. Microsoft has embraced the Open Mobile Alliance Device Management protocols so third parties such as AirWatch and MobileIron can provide management tools too.

There are improvements to the Virtual Private Network (VPN) (including auto triggered VPN), native Miracast wireless display support, integrated wireless printing, Near Field Communication (NFC) tap-to-pair printing and PCs can be Wi-Fi hotspots. All of these make it faster and easier for users to access and utilise network assets such as printers and stay connected wherever they are. These features are on both x86 and ARM platforms which may make Enterprises look again at Windows RT for certain scenarios. Strangely the new features such as ‘Assigned Access’ (or ‘kiosk’ mode) may make Windows RT more appealing to Enterprise than it has been to consumers.

Many of the additions have been driven to help IT functions manage BYOD and Microsoft has tried to cover the full scale of what this means, ranging from personal devices to ‘Windows To Go’.

A major Enterprise concern is security, and there are a number of improvements across areas such as malware and encryption, headlined by integrated biometrics which significantly reduces its cost. Microsoft claim’s a cost reduction from $100 to $4 per device although it is unclear as to whether this all due to the software integration or the natural reduction in cost of what is now a more established technology.

Microsoft’s hope is that enterprises either needing to move away from XP or trying to deal with the proliferation of BYOD, a more mobile and distributed work force and dealing with increased security threats, will see 8.1 as not just a better option than Windows 7 but a necessity.

8.1 is certainly a much better proposition for enterprises than Windows 8, and of course the addition of the .1 makes it seem a little more grown up. There are now far more device options than when Windows 8 launched including a new range of small tablets supported by 8.1. The various device form factors now available from small tablets to large touch desktops provide enterprises with many new usage scenarios. As a result of these new device use cases enterprises are likely to adopt 8.1 rather than 8.1 itself being the driver for organisations to switch OS or purchase new hardware.

For example many enterprises may see the value in providing greater mobility to parts of their workforce via tablet devices before they see the value in upgrading their OS. I think that Microsoft recognise this and have begun promoting Windows 8 devices and their benefits to business especially with 8.1s support for bar code scanners and credit card payment hardware.

Hurdles still to jump

Despite the efforts Microsoft has clearly made to making 8.1 a more compelling migration choice for the enterprise market, challenges still remain for the company. A number of the new benefits are based upon Enterprises adopting not just the new OS but also new versions of server and Cloud software which they may be nervous to do.

There still has to be concerns over the overall User Experience along with the potential impact on IT support functions having to deal with users who will be unfamiliar with many of the new ways in which 8.1 works. Despite the necessary UI changes, Microsoft has not addressed discoverability of what are often unintuitive gestures and actions. They say that when 8.1 ships they will be addressing this with certain ‘tips’ like functionality but that is not in the preview release to judge.

Microsoft also continues to push heavily towards the consumer with a strong focus on Store apps (including games) aimed at the public. This runs the risk of Windows 8 being seen as more about leisure and so alienating enterprise purchasing teams. There has also been little material or modern app examples for enterprise developers. This audience group are likely to find it difficult to understand where modern apps fit within their existing application portfolio and how to handle typical Line of Business (LoB) requirements within the new UI paradigms. With LoB applications not appearing in the Windows store it is difficult to see what others have done and to know how many such apps there are.

In fact this confusion about Windows 8 could be its most significant barrier to enterprise adoption. Microsoft have made so much of ‘touch’ and the Modern UI that many people may have come to believe that if you’re not running all touch apps then there is no point in running Windows 8.

The disappointment around delays to the new touch first Office (now due in 2014) previewed at Build is a symptom of this. The truth is that most of the enterprise workforce are going to be sitting at non-touch desktops using legacy software built for the pre-Modern era. In reality touch is not the best way to create content such as in Word documents or PowerPoint presentations and therefore ‘desktop’ Office will remain essential. The lack of a touch first Office suite is therefore of little consequence to those who use Office on a daily basis. However the massive focus on touch in Windows 8 and then the slowness with which Microsoft have touch enabled their flagship software puts out a conflicting message.

Then there is the question of whether Windows 8 will require all new touch enabled hardware which adds prohibitively to the cost of migrating. This is not true but the large emphasis that Microsoft has placed on touch could leave many organisations believing this.

Enterprise developers are equally conflicted about whether they should be porting entire applications to the Modern UI or just parts of them, or building new value-add applications. Microsoft has done little to help answer these questions. Alternatively if enterprises are not offering any LoB apps that make use of the Modern UI they may feel that they’re spending money to provide employees with a device for Tweeting and playing games in front of the TV.

8.1 is a better OS for running traditional desktop applications but has the mass of PR around touch meant that this fact has been missed? Windows 7 poses none of these awkward questions and therefore could be viewed as the easier option.

There are also missed opportunities with 8.1 that would benefit the Enterprise. The continued lack of integration between the desktop and modern UI for example. There is no way to tell from the Outlook tile that you have new emails unlike on Windows Phone. This misses out on an obvious productivity gain. Equally Enterprise developers cannot create Start screen ‘at a glance’ views into their legacy desktop applications. This would not only increase employee productivity, it would be a quick win for development functions looking to move into modern app development.

A good move from XP

These latest changes in 8.1 certainly make it a compelling option for those progressive enterprises moving up from XP. Providing that they are not distracted by the UI and touch issues and focus on the underlying OS improvements and benefits then it makes sense to migrate to the better OS. It is also the case that technology is moving faster than ever in the devices space. Challenges such as BYOD mean that enterprises may find it difficult to hold off on moving to an OS that supports a rapidly growing range of devices for another 5 to 10 years as they would have done before. Despite this for those that have recently upgraded to Windows 7 the costs, disruption and potential confusion of moving to 8.1 may still be difficult to justify.