At TechEd North America today, Microsoft unveiled a host of features coming in Windows 8.1 that should make the operating system more appealing to business users. Windows 8.1 is a free update to Windows 8 that will ship later this year.
On top of bringing back a Taskbar-visible Start button, Windows 8.1 will give enterprises a lot more control over the operating system's appearance. Chief among these controls is the ability to boot straight to the desktop, a feature found in prerelease versions of Windows 8 but not officially supported in the final version. Additionally, IT departments can now exact more control over the Start screen, fixing its layout and prepopulating it with tiles for corporate apps.
At its most extreme, this will allow IT departments to turn Windows 8 machines into kiosks, booting into specific Metro apps. If the built-in capabilities aren't sufficient, Microsoft will be releasing an embeddable version. The catchily-named Windows Embedded 8.1 Industry will be for use in things like point-of-sale systems and ATMs.
Microsoft has also added a laundry list of other things that it believes will interest corporate customers. The company is continuing to promote support for Bring Your Own Device scenarios with software features that try to bridge the gap between "locked down corporate system" and "free-for-all personal device." Windows 8.1 will have a halfway house between domain joined and non-domain joined machines, called Workplace Join.
Devices registered with Workplace Join will give IT staff some control over access to corporate assets, but without requiring device owners to cede all control to an IT department. In tandem with this, Work Folders allow BYOD devices synced access to corporate data, again without requiring domain joining. IT departments will also be able to purge corporate data without harming personal data.
Beyond that, printing should work more easily, with NFC printer pairing and built-in support for Wi-Fi Direct printing. Presenting should also be simpler, with built-in support for Miracast displays paired using Bluetooth or NFC.
In spite of Microsoft's DirectAccess technology, VPNs are still a feature of many business users' lives. Windows 8.1 should make these a little easier to use, with automatic triggering of VPN connections when an attempt to access a corporate resource is made.
Also on the networking front, Windows 8.1 will be able to share mobile broadband connections.
Most or all of these features should be available in the public preview release of Windows 8.1 that'll be released later this month.