Microsoft Releases Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview

The Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview became available for download on Tuesday.

Microsoft requires registration to access the Preview download, which is set to expire in just over five months on Jan. 14, 2014.

Microsoft has not said much about Windows 8 Enterprise since announcing the Windows 8 editions early last year, although using the Enterprise edition will require having a Software Assurance licensing agreement in place. The other editions are Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro, both of which will be getting 8.1 updates, presumably next month. Microsoft previously announced that original equipment manufacturers would get Windows 8.1 in late August.

Lifecycle Support
Microsoft's announcement on Tuesday indicated that Windows 8.1 will have the same lifecycle support timeline as Windows 8, with both products exiting "extended support" on Jan. 10, 2023. However, the announcement added a confusing detail, suggesting that Windows 8 users will have to move to Windows 8.1 two years after general availability:

"Windows 8 customers will have two years to move to Windows 8.1 after the General Availability of the Windows 8.1 update to continue to remain supported under Windows 8 lifecycle -- and there are deployment tools and guidance available to help make these updates seamless for customers."

Since the lifecycles are the same for Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, it's not clear why Microsoft indicates that there is a two-year period to switch and still have support. A Microsoft spokesperson explained that this policy is based on Microsoft's service pack concept.

"Historically, we have a similar support approach related to service pack support with 12 to 24 months of support," the spokesperson said via e-mail. "Unlike service packs that are typically just a collection of fixes, Windows 8.1 has new features and enhancements -- however, we designed Windows 8.1 to give customers an ability to deploy this update in a manner that is similar to how customers deploy service packs, therefore the support approach is similar."

A second Microsoft announcement today indicated that Microsoft's tools to help with deployments will be available concurrently with the release of the Windows 8.1 operating systems.

"Final versions of the deployment tools, including the Assessment and Deployment Kit for Windows 8.1, Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2013, and System Center 2012 R2 Configuration Manager, will be available at the same time as Windows 8.1 Enterprise to ensure you can begin deploying this new version of the operating system right away," the announcement states.

While that announcement indicates that there is an automated process for moving from Windows 8 Enterprise edition to Windows 8.1 Enterprise edition, that advice doesn't seem to apply to the Preview. The download page for Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview offers a cautionary statement, warning that organizations won't be able to upgrade from the Preview.

"Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview should be installed on a test machine," the download page states. "Following the preview period, it is not possible to upgrade to a licensed working version of Windows 8.1 Enterprise. Personal data will be kept on your test computer, but the Windows OS and your applications will need to be reinstalled when moving from the preview to production bits."

Microsoft offers plenty of cautionary advice about installing the Windows 8.1 Preview, which is summarized here. It's possible to lose applications using the Preview, so Microsoft advises backups and only using the Preview OS on test machines.

Windows 8.1 Preview start screen.

New Features
New features in the Enterprise edition of Windows 8.1 include the Start Screen control, Windows To Go Creator and Windows Enterprise sideloading. The Start Screen control lets IT departments control the appearance of desktops across the organization, including blocking user changes to the Start Screen. Windows To Go Creator seems to be a new phrase for Microsoft's portable Windows 8 desktop scheme, in which a corporate Windows 8 desktop can be imaged to a USB drive for remote use. "Sideloading" is Microsoft's term for publishing line-of-business apps via a portal page, without having to lodge them in the Windows Store, and Microsoft is requiring Software Assurance to do that, or organizations can buy "sideloading keys," according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

"A sideload product key would be needed if the computer is not Active Directory-joined, and this key is provided to SA for Windows customers at no extra charge," the spokesperson explained by e-mail. "If an organization does not have Software Assurance they can purchase sideloading keys."

Some of the other features that are unique to Windows 8.1 Enterprise edition aren't particularly new as they are present in the Windows 7 Enterprise edition. Those features include AppLocker, which enables policies to be set on what apps and files can reside on a device, BranchCache, which is designed to make content access by branch offices in a wide area network more efficient, and DirectAccess, which lets users connect without the hassles of a virtual private network.

Microsoft is also touting virtual desktop infrastructure capabilities with the Enterprise edition of Windows 8.1, but it requires deploying Windows Server 2012, too. Similarly, AppLocker, BranchCache and DirectAccess appear to require using either Windows Server 2008 R2 or Windows Server 2012.

Microsoft demonstrated a lot of the Windows 8.1 features in June at its TechEd events. Some of the business customization capabilities, such as "assigned access," which allows an IT department to control Windows Store access on a device, were described by Jon DeVaan, corporate vice president for Windows development. Microsoft added a Start button and boot-to-desktop capabilities in Windows 8.1, as well as some networking improvements.

Microsoft lists all of the Windows 8 Enterprise features here, while all Windows 8.1 features can be found at this page. Microsoft has been updating Windows 8.1 on a monthly basis so far, with the OS having received three waves of updates that fix features or improve reliability.


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