Microsoft Readies Windows 8.1 Update for April 8 Release

Microsoft gave more details about the first update to Windows 8.1 on Wednesday at its Build conference.

Windows 8.1 Update will be released through Microsoft's Windows Update service on April 8, according to Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Operating Systems Group, during Wednesday's keynote. The update will be free for Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 users.

Many of Windows 8.1 Update's improvements were already described back in February. For instance, Windows 8.1 Update will allow users to "boot directly to the desktop," a much requested addition. In his keynote Wednesday, Belfiore explained that the update will also deliver a new Start Screen, which had been a longtime complaint by Windows 8 users.

The new Start Screen (there's no Start Menu) was briefly shown, and it includes controls at the top right for Power and Search functions. It's also possible to get context menus by clicking the right button on a mouse. Multiple app tiles can be selected using the Control key. Belfiore said that the new Start Screen improvements will make it easier for users to find and run apps, as well as use the operating system with a mouse and keyboard.

Also at Build, Terry Myerson, executive vice president of the Operating Systems group, said that "we're not here to announce the next version of Windows," although that had been rumored. The rumors have suggested that next Windows release is currently going by the "Threshold" code name.

Myerson said that "we are going to enable your universal Windows apps to run in a window." The point wasn't explained in great detail, but Microsoft announced Wednesday that it has made it easier for developers to port their apps to use the so-called "Windows Store Apps" (also known as "Metro" or "Modern") user interface, even across different devices and form factors. Windows Store Apps typically run full-screened and chromeless, while so-called "Desktop" apps have the look and feel of Windows 7-type apps. The Windows Store Apps side of the Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 operating system have fixed sizing limitations. However, Microsoft showed a Facebook "Modern" app that now has the ability to minimize its running window.

It's also possible now to use the taskbar on the Desktop side to switch between apps. Belfiore claimed that users "no longer have to think about a different switching model for apps whether they are Win32 desktop apps or modern." That's been a jarring experience for some Windows 7 users.

Microsoft has made it easier for organizations to run corporate intranets with legacy code using Internet Explorer 11. Belfiore said that Microsoft has changed the user agent string and reenabled ActiveX to add that support, enabling better site compatibility with IE 11.

Microsoft plans to provide Windows 8.1 to its original equipment manufacturers of smartphones and tablets with screen sizes of nine inches or less for "zero dollars," Belfiore announced. That's being done to "get this platform out there," he added.

Windows Phone 8.1
Microsoft now supports virtual private networks (VPNs) on Windows Phone 8.1, as well as S/MIME. Nick Hedderman, a senior product manager at Microsoft, described pinning a VPN to the device's settings, allowing VPN connections in "a second." S/MIME is an e-mail encryption scheme. Users can opt to encrypt or sign their e-mail messages with Windows Phone 8.1. In addition, it's possible to set up Windows Phone 8.1 smartphones for corporate environment, as well return them back to previous state. Microsoft added an ability to instantly connect with Wi-Fi hotspots. Also new in Windows Phone 8.1 is the addition of the Internet Explorer 11 browser.

Windows Phone 8.1 will roll out "in the next few months" and will arrive on new devices in April or May. More about Microsoft's new Windows Phone 8.1 details are described in this article, which also describes Cortana, Microsoft's new talking personal assistant for Windows Phone 8.1.

Enterprise Support
Harry Pierson, of the Microsoft Operating Systems Group for Windows tablets, claimed during the Build keynote that Microsoft recognizes the investments that enterprises have in their custom apps. Organizations don't want to throw away their custom code, but they also need to access the Windows Store Apps user interface. He described taking an app originally built to run on Windows Compact and making it work on x86 tablets. The process is called brokering an app because "it runs outside the normal app container" to add the new UI, he explained. "This is a feature designed for enterprise computing and sideloading apps," he added. Pierson described making a few changes, like making the app asynchronous and rebuilding just the user interface for the apps, before making it ready to run on any x86 tablet.

For the more distant future, Microsoft is eventually planning bring the graphics of Xbox One to Windows and Windows Phone through DirectX 12. The DirectX 12 driver was described as graphics technology that can scale and take advantage of a device's GPU horsepower without taxing the CPU.

Microsoft's new CEO Satya Nadella arrived at the end of the Build keynote to answer some developer questions. He said that the Windows 8.1 Update was a big milestone for Microsoft and that it would allow tablets across a varied price range to emerge on the market.

Nadella addressed porting code to other platforms and claimed that Microsoft was the only platform builder offering API bindings and cross-platform library access for developers. He added that Microsoft is working with PhoneGap, XAML and Unity to go cross platform. Nadella also claimed a similar developer experience using the Windows and Windows Phone platforms, saying that "90 percent" of the APIs are consistent for Windows Phones and Windows tablets.

Nadella touted Microsoft's commitment to "natural user interfaces." Quite a lot of the Build keynote was devoted to showing off Cortana. Cortana is capable of learning about user preferences and responding to voice commands, much like Apple's Siri.

Touch-Based Microsoft Office
Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate vice president of Microsoft Office, showed how Office documents can be accessed on Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 devices in a similar way with a new improved touch interface. The touch interface was earlier demonstrated with the new Office for iPad, although the iPad version lacks good mouse support.

The new "touch-first" Office uses the "Ribbon" menu, which has been sized up to enable access with a finger. It has multiple levels of undo and redo. Microsoft enabled "inking," or drawing on the screen, which can be done using a fingertip, or the device's stylus can be used for greater accuracy. The new Office will open any document from an earlier version of Office "flawlessly," Koenigsbauer claimed. He said there's full fidelity with art, text and graphics features with the new Office experience. Koenigsbauer claimed that the touch-based Office works on Windows Phone devices, too, offering a consistent experience.

Windows 8.1 Update is available early on MSDN for developers starting Wednesday. Microsoft also announced that Visual Studio 2012 Update 2 Release Candidate is available for download as of Wednesday for registered Windows or Windows app developers. More on the Build developer announcements can be found in this article.

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About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.