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What's old, what's new for the enterprise with the Windows 8.1 update

Microsoft's Windows 8.1 update has stirred controversy among users who still hate its interface. Features such as BYOD support may change some minds.

Microsoft's Windows 8.1 update has been all the rage lately. While many in IT want to see the operating system succeed, Windows 8 has been a flop -- especially in the enterprise. Of a dozen or so clients I've asked over the past few months whether they're considering Windows 8, only one has said yes.

But the Windows 8.1 release is not all that bad, if you can get past the user interface. The good news is that there are plenty of options for doing that.

Here are seven Windows 8.1 features that might change your mind about using the OS in an enterprise environment:

  1. Windows 8.1 comes in two flavors for business -- Pro and Enterprise. Pro will include Domain/Group Policy interaction and enforcement, as well as BitLocker encryption (which has been much improved since Windows 8). Windows 8.1 Enterprise takes things up a few more notches with Windows To Go, which allows the OS to run off a USB thumb drive. It also includes familiar technologies such as AppLocker, BranchCache and DirectAccess. Windows 8.1 Basic Edition remains the starter version for home users. You'll no doubt see this version in your enterprise via bring your own desktop (BYOD) programs, so it's good to start thinking about how you're going to keep it under control.
  2. Work Folders is one of the biggest new Windows 8.1 features for businesses. Work Folders provides a means for sharing and synchronizing files via the cloud. Essentially, it's SkyDrive integrated into the OS, but you'll need a Windows Server 2012 system to make it work. I can just hear it now, though: "How did all of that sensitive client information end up on Joe's computer over in Europe?" This has lots of security ramifications and considerations.
  3. Two big BYOD-focused improvements include Workplace Join and Open MDM. The former lets users register their own systems on the corporate network while, at the same time, allowing IT to control what users can and cannot do. Open MDM has an application programing interface that allows third-party mobile device management (MDM) vendors to provide Windows 8.1 integration. This is big.
  4. The Metro interface that makes traditional PC users hostile isn't going away. More granular settings include controls for "corner navigation" to get rid of the annoying charms bar and hot corners. Microsoft has brought the Start button back, but it merely serves to take you to the modern Metro UI when you click on it! You're still going to need something like Start8 if you want traditional Start menu functionality. I haven't yet found anyone who doesn't. I don't know why Microsoft seems so set on driving people away from the desktop when that model that has worked for a couple of decades. There's obviously money in it somewhere.
  5. The Windows 8.1 update has continued Windows Defender integration and improvements including network behavior monitoring and tighter integration with Internet Explorer 11. Given it's up and down ratings, Windows Defender technology may complement rather than replace third-party anti-malware in most organizations.
  6. Printing that uses near-field communication (NFC) is now possible. This is another neat Windows 8.1 feature for BYOD users lucky enough to have NFC built into their mobile devices. Based on my own experiences, I suspect this will initially create more problems for IT than it solves, but NFC printing will be a nice long-term option for those phone and tablet users who have pretty much been ignored to this point.
  7. Skype is built right in. Good for old-school Skype users, and perhaps the NSA as well.

More on Windows 8.1 features

Top five Windows 8.1 security additions to watch

Should you retrain users first or wait for Windows 8.1?

Microsoft targets enterprises with Windows 8.1 enhancements

Faster update cycle for Windows 8.1 could tax IT

IT shops find business fixes in Windows 8.1 preview

Windows To Go to offer Windows 8.1 as a USB update

Microsoft exec talks about Windows 8.1 updates

There are a few other potential gotchas in Windows 8.1 that could create security problems for businesses. The first is the Smart Search function which is enabled by default. This means Microsoft is, ironically, taking the "Scroogle" approach and monitoring searches on your local system. Yuck.

In addition, SkyDrive is enabled by default if users log in with a Microsoft account. This may not be a big a deal if you require traditional Windows user logins, but you can see where I'm going with this. SkyDrive -- cloud file sharing in general -- means more compliance gaps and security risks.

System Restore Points are not enabled by default in Windows 8.1, perhaps as a space-saving measure for mobile devices? This is dangerous because a user may assume that an important file was copied when it wasn't. Make a point to enable it.

Not a lot has changed in terms of what people loved to hate about Windows 8, so we'll probably continue to see backlash over the Windows 8.1 update. The revised OS is what Windows 8 should have been, but you can't fault Microsoft too much for its weaknesses in a first release. It's more of a long-term vision problem than anything.

So, where are you headed with Windows on the desktop? If you're still running Windows XP, Microsoft wants you to move straight to Windows 8.1. I'm seeing very little XP on networks today, but I believe that Windows 7 is the new Windows 8 for the enterprise. Windows 9 (or whatever the next version will be called) could be dramatically different.

Again, I'm still a fan of Windows 8, but I'm a small shop. Deploying and maintaining Windows 8.1 in the enterprise is a different deal. Some of Windows' recent improvements -- especially BitLocker and the management tools built into Windows 8.1 Enterprise -- arguably make it more enterprise-worthy than ever. It's your decision to make or, perhaps, ignore.

Dig Deeper on Windows 8 and 8.1

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Nice article!

The one thing I disagree with is the Start Menu. Oh, how I always hated that fussy little thing. The old All Programs menu was filled with identical folder icons and tiny text (at least on my 1920x1080 laptop). Worse, it made me move my mouse/touchpad/eraser head pointer perfectly horizontally to drill down into the next level. It felt so fragile, ready to disappear if I breathed wrong. I despised getting three levels deep in nested menus and accidentally clicking the wrong thing; I'd have to start all over and retrace my steps... "Let's see, it was Start, then All Programs, then Microsoft SQL Server 2008, then Configuration Tools, then SQL Server Configuration Manager...Whoops! I clicked Reporting Services Configuration Manager".

I always used to pin my most-used programs to the left side of the Start Menu in order to avoid All Programs as much as possible. With the new Start Screen, that "left side" is just much bigger, taking up the whole monitor. That's fine by me -- with the big, easy-to-recognize and easy-to-click icons, all of my most-used programs are a very quick click-click away (one click for Start, one for the program). Live with it for a few weeks and you get used to it; for a few months and going back sounds torturous.

One tip: Set your desktop wallpaper as the Start Screen background in 8.1. It makes it seem less like you're "leaving" the desktop, but rather showing icons on top of it.
A key thing with many of the 8.1 Enterprise is that they need Server 2012/R2 at the backend, and likely you'll also need 2012 DC's with schema updates as well. Is anyone actually ready for this? Brand new installations maybe, but there are tens of thousands of domains with 2008/R2 or even still 2003 DC's chugging away, with no immediate need to upgrade them.

A lame Start Button and boot-to-desktop are not enough for Enterprise customers to consider an 8 migration. There needs to be a way to fully remove Metro and add complete legacy start menu functionality without requiring 3rd party addons.

The cloud integration is totally scary for most IT admins. It certainly worries me. You should be able to remove/disable all of it.

Most companies have their own corporate AV/Malware solution, so again, Defender should be able to be removed and replaced. Companies are not going to trust MS to protect their infrastructure.

Finally, Skype? Are you kidding me? Again, it would almost certainly be removed from all corporate images! Security concerns, YES. Time wasting concerns, YES. Get real MS.