Windows and Windows Phone devices are used for both
business- and consumer-centric tasks. But for the past few years, Microsoft has
been focusing first on making its latest Windows mobile platforms more
appealing to consumers.

The main reason for this consumer-first emphasis is that Microsoft
is far stronger and more dominant in the business world than in the consumer
one. According to the company’s own statistics, about 58 percent of its
business is attributable to enterprise, with another six percent or so coming from
small/midsize businesses. Because Microsoft management is a big believer in the
consumerization of IT/bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trends, it has been
increasingly fixated on improving the consumer share of the company’s business.

While Microsoft’s motivations here are understandable, the
results have baffled more than a few business users. Microsoft actually stepped
backward with its Windows 8 and Windows Phone operating systems, in many
business users’ eyes. By making a touch-first interface that looked and worked
in unfamiliar ways the default with Windows 8, Microsoft alienated many
potential business users who rightfully worried about decreased productivity
and steep learning curves. Adding insult to injury, Microsoft removed some business
features that were part of older versions of both Windows and Windows Phone
when it gave the platforms a makeover.

With Windows 8.1 (released in October 2013) and Windows
Phone 8.1 (due in spring 2014), Microsoft is finally adding back into each of
these operating systems more of the features and functionality demanded by its
business customers.

Windows 8.1: Boot straight to desktop is back, baby!

To be fair, Microsoft didn’t completely ignore business users with its latest Windows releases.
In October 2012, when it rolled out Windows 8, Microsoft included a handful of
business-specific features and an Enterprise SKU. Among the features for
business customers that hit when Windows 8 first launched were Windows
To Go
, BitLocker drive encryption, and DirectAccess networking support. But
those weren’t enough to sway many business users, who were either still
clinging to (or stuck with) Windows XP or already in the midst of Windows 7
deployments.

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft stepped up its interaction with
the business community in designing and updating Windows 8. The result? A
couple of much-requested features that didn’t make the Windows 8 cut — the
familiar Windows Start Button (minus the associated Start Menu) and the ability
to boot straight to desktop, circumventing the Metro-style Start screen — both
made it into 8.1, front and center.

There are other business-centric features in Windows 8.1,
too. Among them:

  • NFC tap-to-pair printing: Users can tap a
    Windows 8.1 device against an enterprise NFC-enabled printer and print. There’s
    no need to buy a special printer; users can attach an NFC tag to existing
    machines.
  • Wi-Fi Direct printing: Users can connect to
    Wi-Fi Direct printers without needing additional drivers or software.
  • Native Miracast
    wireless display compatibility
    : No extra dongles needed. Users can project
    content to a Miracast-enabled device by pairing the device through Bluetooth or
    NFC.
  • Broadband tethering: Users can tether Windows
    8.1 mobile broadband-enabled PCs or tablets into a personal Wi-Fi hotspot.
  • Auto-triggered VPN: When apps or resources need
    access through an inbox VPN, Windows 8.1 will automatically prompt users to
    sign in with one click. This feature will work with Microsoft and third-party
    inbox VPN clients.
  • More authentication options: Support for
    fingerprint-based biometric devices and virtual smart cards for multifactor
    authentication.
  • Additional Defender and IE functionality:
    Network behavior monitoring added to Windows Defender, Microsoft’s built-in
    antivirus product. Internet Explorer 11 will scan binary extensions (e.g.,
    ActiveX) using the anti-malware solution before potentially harmful code is
    executed.
  • Start Screen lockdown for company-issued
    devices: IT can control the layout of these machines’ Start Screens and prevent
    user customization across individual workgroups or the entire company.
  • Remote business data removal: IT can wipe
    corporate data while leaving users’ personal data intact on user-purchased
    devices running Windows 8.1.
  • Open MDM support: New Open Mobile Alliance
    Device Management (OMA-DM) capabilities are built into the OS and enable mobile
    device management using third-party MDM solutions, such as MobileIron and
    AirWatch, with no additional agent required.
  • Workplace Join: New feature ensuring that only
    registered and trusted devices are allowed to access secured enterprise data.
  • Assigned Access: Machines can be locked down so
    that users can use only a specific Windows Store application for a set period
    of time. A customer service application is an example of a target for this
    scenario.
  • New built-in help tutorials and navigational
    aids: Inexperienced users can get help navigating the unfamiliar new interface.

The inclusion of more business-friendly features doesn’t
mean that Windows 8.1 automatically will make huge gains among wary corporate
customers. But Windows 8.1 does seem to be making a bit of headway (at least
anecdotally) among the enterprise set, especially compared to Windows 8.

Windows Phone 8.1: “Blue” business features on tap

Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system — the precursor
of the Windows Phone OS — was tailor-made to appeal to business users. However,
following Microsoft’s phone-platform reset, everything changed.

Like its Windows client counterpart, the Windows Phone team
at Microsoft has been focused on all play and little work since launching the
Windows Phone 7 operating system. Things didn’t change much with the launch of
the Windows Phone 8 operating system in October 2012. In the past year,
Microsoft has delivered three
incremental updates to the WP8 OS
, and almost all the new features in those
updates have been focused on consumers, not business users.

In the spring of 2014, Microsoft is supposedly going to
release the next major update of its Windows Phone OS platform, codenamed “Blue.”
(The final name of this update may be Windows Phone OS 8.1, to emphasize its
increasing synergies with the Windows 8.1 operating system, but Microsoft
officials still haven’t publicly revealed the name, features, or due date for
Windows Phone Blue.)

For corporate users, it’s not the Windows Phone Blue OS
itself that is expected to provide a number of missing and needed business features;
it’s an add-on pack that Microsoft officials detailed earlier this year. Here’s
a list of some of the features Microsoft has promised in the Windows Phone
Enterprise Feature Pack, which is due out in the first half of 2014:

  • S/MIME support for mail encryption
  • Auto-triggered VPN (which seems to mean VPN that
    is automatically triggered by specific apps, if it is like the auto-triggered
    VPN in Windows 8.1
    )
  • Extended mobile device management
  •  Certificate management

Microsoft officials won’t say whether this Enterprise Pack
will require Windows Phone Blue in order to work, but that would be my guess,
given that Blue and the Enterprise Pack are expected to arrive at roughly the
same time.

Beyond Blue: The future is less clear

There are a lot of moving parts at Microsoft right now.
Earlier this summer, management reorganized the company, creating a
single, unified OS division
. Future iterations of the Windows and Windows
Phone OS platforms (as well as the Xbox operating system platform) will be
developed by a common engineering team at the company.

Early rumors indicate that this unified engineering team may
be moving toward more
closely aligning the two ARM-based flavors of Windows
that Microsoft is
building: The Windows RT operating system and the Windows Phone OS. If this is
the case, Microsoft may end up creating a common OS that can run on phone and
tablet devices with screen sizes smaller than 10 inches. This OS may no longer
include compatibility for “desktop”/legacy Win32 applications,
according to early reports.

Microsoft also is building a unified app store, which will
feature Metro-style/Windows Store apps for Windows and Windows Phone apps.
(Legacy/Win32 apps also will likely still be featured in the common store. But as
is the case today, they won’t be purchasable and downloadable from the unified
Windows app store.) This new unified store may not materialize until Spring 2015, however,
according to early leaks.

What does this mean for business users who still need to be
able to run line-of-business and other business-focused apps on Windows going
forward? Microsoft officials have continued to insist that the desktop will be
part of Windows for the foreseeable future. How far away that future date ends
is unknown at this point.

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If there’s a Microsoft product or service family you’d like
Mary Jo to examine in a future column, let her know and we’ll do our best to
cover it.