Microsoft has unveiled moves to bring its Windows operating system into the tablet era during its Build developer conference in San Francisco and gone further than before to respond to calls for a return to some familiar features.
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As MicroScope has previously reported, users have been unhappy with Microsoft's Touch interface for traditional enterprise applications, which led many organisations to remain on Windows 7, using Windows 8 only for tablet deployments.
The touch-friendly environment introduced in Windows 8 and the replacement of the Start menu with a full screen of tiled shortcuts has been a tough sell for many users, who find the interaction between the old desktop and the new tablet environment difficult.
Windows 8.1 Update 1 is available to developers now and for all users from April 8 2014. It allows users to pin new-look Store apps to the desktop taskbar. Store apps now have a thin top windows bar with close and minimise buttons, and a permanent shutdown button has appeared on the Start screen for easier access.
Microsoft says a new "Enterprise Mode" for Internet Explorer 11 offers better compatibility with older versions, so businesses can upgrade without breaking existing intranet applications.
Delegates at the Build conference were also shown a preview of a forthcoming update with bigger changes, including the return of a desktop Start menu and the ability to run Store apps in a desktop window.
Windows Phone is being updated to version 8.1, set to appear from around May 2014. The mobile OS will include a virtual personal assistant app called Cortana, which can respond to voice input, answer questions and perform actions such as making appointments. Cortana is in preview and will be available first in the USA, with a worldwide roll-out to follow.
Other changes in Windows Phone 8.1 include a new Action Center for notifications and a swipe-style on-screen keyboard for fast text input.
New enterprise features in Windows Phone 8.1 include VPN, support for S/MIME encrypted email, and a "workplace" option which enrolls a device in Active Directory, similar to Workplace Join in full Windows 8.1.
On the developer side, most of the Windows Runtime – the engine behind the tablet environment in Windows 8 – has ported to Windows Phone 8.1. This enables a new Universal App framework, so developers can share visual and non-visual code in apps that support both PCs and Windows Phones.
Enterprises will be able to build Store apps that run outside the Windows Runtime sandbox, enabling them to re-use legacy code.
Microsoft also showed an early preview of a forthcoming version of Office for Windows 8 and Windows Phone. The new Office will be a Store app, and is designed for tablet use. The software suite has some similarities to what has been done in Office for iPad, but has more complete features. It will not replace desktop Office, but will offer a touch-friendly alternative.
The ARM version of Windows, called Windows RT, did not feature in the Build keynote. With a version of Office now set to come to Windows Phone, it is possible that the Phone OS in a tablet form factor will replace Windows RT – although Microsoft has not made any such announcements.
Microsoft’s overall focus is to refine Windows 8 to make it more satisfactory for desktop users with keyboard and mouse, while promoting the new-look Store apps and bringing the phone and PC platforms closer together.