Microsoft Showcases Windows 8.1 at TechEd Europe

Thursday's TechEd Europe keynote put the spotlight on Windows 8.1, which became available as a public preview this week.

The keynote talk by Jon DeVaan, corporate vice president for Windows development at Microsoft, included a demo of some Windows 8.1 features and a description of new management capabilities for IT pros enabled by Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 Customization
DeVaan said that Microsoft got a lot of feedback about the Windows 8 experience. As a result, a key theme in Windows 8.1 is that if a user primarily uses the "modern environment," then that user should be able to stay there, and only go to the Desktop side of the operating system if that's wanted -- or vice versa. He noted that with Windows 8.1, the navigation can be changed to boot directly to the Desktop OS side, if that's what's wanted.

The start screen of Windows 8.1 can be customized by IT pros with a locked corporate standard image. One PowerShell command can be used to export the file that customizes the image, DeVaan said. Group Policies can be set for the start screen and IT pros can set multiple policies for different groups within their organizations.

The new 8.1 release will also enable fixed-purpose device customization, which DeVaan described happening with a Windows RT device. For instance, a store manager can set up a device for retail use using a Microsoft Dynamics point-of-sale application. That's done through Windows 8.1's Control Panel. Under "accounts," there is a new "assigned access" feature, allowing the device to be assigned to the single Microsoft Dynamics app. After assignment, the user of the device can't view the Windows RT system user interface, as those settings are disabled from view. The app will work with a bar-code reader and magnetic stripe reader to scan bar codes and read credit cards during sales transactions. It's an example of taking an off-the-shelf device and setting it up for specific use, DeVaan said. Windows Embedded 8.1 Industry Edition is the OS to use for more customization options, he added.

Device Support
DeVaan said that Microsoft has improved mobile device management in Windows 8.1 by adopting the Open Mobile Alliance Device Management (OMA-DM) protocol. Use of the OMA-DM protocol enables device management by third-party management systems, such as those from MobileIron or AirWatch, as well as Microsoft's own Windows Intune. It enables capabilities such as app deployment, software update management, VPN and wireless configuration, compliance reporting and inventory, and remote data wipe capabilities, he said.

Microsoft is supporting new industry standard protocols for hardware devices with USB, Bluetooth Smart (a low-power version of Bluetooth) and Wi-Fi Direct, DeVaan said. Windows 8.1 is also the only OS that supports three-dimensional printers out of the box, he added, pointing to a MakerBot Replicator 2 three-dimensional printer on stage. The printing experience is the same as with two-dimensional printers, he claimed.

DeVaan demonstrated how it's easy with Windows 8.1 to set up local printers on a device via wireless near-field communications. He moved a Windows 8.1 device close to a printer and got a prompt on the device to add the printer. "With a quick wave of my device, I was able to associate with a local device using near-field communications," he said.

DeVaan also touted Windows 8 security with a "secure boot" capability, which is part of the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface standard. With secure boot, "it's really hard to own a machine," DeVaan said, adding that "it's never impossible." He described it as a new way to protect corporate data. "The age of relying on passwords for protection probably is passed for us," he said.

Windows 8.1 supports security via fingerprint-based biometrics. A demo showed that fingerprint biometrics can be used to dispense with passwords, such as buying software through the Windows Store. Developers can easily add this capability to their apps by adding one line of code to request biometric confirmation.

MDOP Milestones
The keynote also included the announcement of two Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) beta releases.

The MDOP betas are User Experience Virtualization 2.0 (UE-V 2.0) and Application Virtualization 5.0 Service Pack 2 (App-V 5.0 SP2), which can be downloaded at the respective Microsoft Connect portal pages (requires registration and filling out a survey). The two betas can be used with the Windows 8.1 preview.

UE-V 2.0 centralizes a user's desktop settings, allowing them to access the same desktop on multiple devices, or to recover desktop settings if a device gets lost or disabled. This beta release supports Windows 8 application personalization, adds the ability of users to further control what settings will roam via a new "company settings center" and enhances the sync engine, according to a Microsoft blog description by Stephen L. Rose.

App-V 5.0 SP2 is Microsoft's application virtualization technology for use with virtual desktop infrastructure-type scenarios, allowing multiple versions of applications to run side by side without conflict. This beta adds shell extension support, as well as the ability to detect dependencies, such as MSXML and Visual C++ libraries, automatically during the sequencing process, according to Rose. Microsoft also issued a beta of App-V 4.6 SP3, which supports Windows 8.1, on Thursday.

DeVaan demonstrated how UE-V 2.0 can be valuable for IT organizations. He dropped a Windows 8.1 tablet device into a fish tank on stage, with the device presumably destroyed as a result. He showed how the user can just log into a new device, enter a security code and have the new device set up with the old desktop settings in a few minutes. DeVaan noted that these settings can roam from a user's SkyDrive account, but UE-V 2.0 can also be used to do that with Windows 8.1 devices.

MDOP is a suite of six enterprise-grade IT tools that is typically sold with Microsoft's Software Assurance option and some licensing plans. Microsoft released MDOP 2013 in April, and the new betas will be finalized with the suite's next release.


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