Are universal apps, Windows 8.1 updates enough to entice IT shops?

Microsoft unveiled a Windows 8.1 update and vowed to help developers create universal apps that run across Windows devices ranging from phones to Xbox One.

Microsoft promised this week to deliver universal apps and highlighted new Windows enterprise features to entice IT into the Windows 8.1 camp.

The software behemoth also offered developers at the Build 2014 conference a glimpse of the Windows roadmap, featuring the return of the traditional Start menu integrated with the classic desktop and modern views. In addition, Microsoft showed how a universal application would run inside a window on a screen and previewed its touch-based version of Microsoft Office.

Since 2012, Microsoft's strongest critics have focused on the lack of Windows 8 applications and lackluster demand for the operating system.

Microsoft spent much of its three-hour conference keynote on universal apps. The company promised developers it would provide the tools to allow them to create one Windows application that provides a similar experience on any Windows device, ranging from a Windows Phone to the Xbox One. The company also released Visual Studio 2013 Update RC2.

But whether there will be an onslaught of Windows universal apps in the future remains to be seen.

"If it's truly universal, it will be a boon to developers and users," said Brian Katz, director of mobile innovation for a large pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. "Part of the question will be, 'Are developers smart enough to use the responsive design piece?' What works on a laptop doesn't work as well on a tablet and [a] phone screen.

"On the other hand, from a purchase perspective, it's huge for consumers if you can buy one app and it works on all three," Katz said. "You get triple the value."

Windows 8.1 update ushered in

Microsoft promised to deliver a Windows 8.1 update on April 8, coinciding with the end of Windows XP's support. The Windows 8.1 Update is now available on MSDN and TechNet. Volume-license customers will receive the update later this month.

The new version addresses enterprise and consumer needs for end users without touchscreen PCs.

"It makes it easier for the enterprise," Katz said.

There are a lot of people not enveloped by the touch phenomenon, he said.

Microsoft also addressed criticisms of the confusing Windows 8.1 modern interface with a number of fixes designed to integrate features from the classic desktop user interface (UI).

"The UI retrofits [for] the Start menu sound wonderful," said Ric Getter, programmer/analyst in the computing technology solutions group at Portland Community College (PCC). Portland, Ore.-based PCC is in the process of testing Windows 8 and plans to deploy it this year. "We're still sweating bullets when it comes to deployment," he said.

The Windows 8.1 update includes improved compatibility for Internet Explorer (IE) 11 as well as IE 7 and IE 8, more mobile device management (MDM) support, and other UI enhancements.

The update for Windows 8.1 may help reduce the friction in enterprise deployment a bit, but IT pros will have to see it in practice, said Wes Miller, research vice president at Directions on Microsoft, an IT consulting firm in Kirkland, Wash.

Microsoft also changed its Windows Embedded licensing to give volume license customers with a Software Assurance (SA) plan for Windows, or a SA for Windows Embedded, access to Windows Enterprise and Windows Embedded Industry.

In May, Microsoft will provide enterprise sideloading rights to organizations in select volume-licensing programs with no additional costs. For some customers who need to deploy custom line-of-business Windows 8.1 applications, there will be a one-time fee of $100 for an unlimited number of devices.

Windows Phone 8.1

Microsoft took the wraps off Windows Phone 8.1 and demonstrated Cortana, the much-hyped personal digital assistant that competes with Apple Inc.'s Siri and Google Inc.'s Now personal assistant applications.

Cortana relies on the Bing search engine and learns how end users employ their Windows Phones and what data interests them.

Microsoft also showed new Windows Phone 8.1 personalization features and capabilities for business, including VPN support, the ability to read encrypted email and MDM capabilities, among others.

"It makes a difference," Katz said. Microsoft has included pieces needed by the enterprise for more IT control that was previously lacking, he said.

"For businesses that are wholly Microsoft and haven't made a move into iOS and Android [devices], it's a viable option," Katz said.

However, Microsoft's attempts to add more enterprise-like features to Windows Phone still don't reveal why businesses are not deploying Windows Phone or why a large number of consumers are not purchasing Windows Phones, Miller said.

Windows Phone 8.1 also comes with a new calendar update and Wi-Fi Sense, which helps the smartphones automatically connect to free Wi-Fi. Other enhancements include the integration of a new version of Skype with Cortana and the Word Flow Keyboard. Word Flow enables a user to swipe his finger across the keyboard for data input rather than typing.

Microsoft will also offer Windows for free on devices with screens smaller than nine inches, but it's not yet clear whether this move will drive growth for small Windows-based touchscreen devices.

The royalty-free news directly pits Microsoft against Google for developers' hearts and minds, said William Ho, principal analyst at 556 Ventures, a mobile and wireless market consulting firm.

In addition, Microsoft introduced Nokia's new Lumia Windows Phones. Among the new devices were the inexpensive Lumia 630 and 635 models and the high-end Lumia 930, which includes the ability to wirelessly charge. Nokia's new smartphones will ship first overseas before heading to the U.S.

"The continued U.S. carrier community support for Nokia and Windows Phone 8.1 show they want to diversify their exposure to two mobile operating systems," Ho said.

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