Microsoft's latest mobile platforms bring back more business-friendly features

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Microsoft's consumer focus for its mobile platforms has come at the expense of business features. See how Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 will give business users more of the functionality they need.

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.

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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.

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

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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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