Microsoft has released additional details regarding the changes due to appear in Windows 8.1 at its TechEd North America conference, showing a continued focus on mobile and hybrid devices.
Codenamed Windows Blue, Windows 8.1 is to be a free upgrade to Windows 8 that adds several new features and addresses concerns raised by some about the usability of the Modern user interface, previously known as the Metro UI. Based on the touch-centric tile interface first developed for Microsoft's Windows Phone platform, Modern UI replaces the iconic Start Menu with a Start Screen - and while the Start Screen is here to stay, Windows 8.1 will at least bring a Start Button back to help newcomers to the OS find their way around.
Not all of Windows 8.1 is about fighting the fires of consumer acceptance, though: Microsoft's focus on mobile and hybrid devices is clear from the company's TechEd presentation. With Intel announcing that its Haswell chips will be at the heart of numerous 'two-in-one' systems to be unveiled at Computex this week, that's perhaps unsurprising: hybrid devices that can transform from a laptop to a tablet and back again are taking off, and as prices fall users are increasingly purchasing touch-screen laptops in place of more traditional models.
To Microsoft's announcement: Windows 8.1 will include networking features that are built with mobile devices clearly in mind. Devices with near-field communication (NFC) hardware - an extension of the radiofrequency identification (RFID) system that allows for two-way short-range communication between devices - will be able to pair with printers simply by tapping their device to whichever printer is chosen, prompting the device to download and install the correct driver and set the default printer to the last one tapped. Using off-the-shelf RFID tags to achieve this, enterprises - for that's where Microsoft sees the function being of most use - will simply need to tag their existing printers to enable the function, rather than needing to buy brand-new NFC-enabled models.
Windows 8.1 is also tipped to include Wi-Fi Direct printing support for the first time, allowing mobile devices to connect to an ad-hoc network driven by the printer itself and automatically select the printer without the need to install drivers or additional software. Other networking features include integrated support for the Miracast wireless display standard - again driven by an NFC tap gesture - and the ability to create a Wi-Fi hotspot out of a Windows 8.1 tablet with integrated 3G or 4G modem. Improvements to Windows' handling of virtual private network (VPN) connections are also included, triggering a VPN connection automatically if a protected resource is demanded - a feature that will extend to selected third-party VPN client software.
With the company's presentation focusing on enterprise deployments, it's little surprise that the rest of Microsoft's TechEd unveiling concentrated on security and administration. Windows 8.1, the company has revealed, will give domain administrators control over the layout of the Start Screen to ensure a uniform appearance across all devices, the ability to remove business data from remote devices while leaving personal data intact, and support for Open Mobile Alliance Device Management (OMA-DM) software, access controls to prevent unauthorised devices from connecting to a corporate network.
Further features due to appear in Windows 8.1 include 'Assigned Access,' a kiosk-like mode that locks a device down to a single application - but is limited to software obtained from the Windows Store - and the announcement of Windows Embedded 8.1 Industry, a variant of the operating system targeted at point-of-sale, automated teller and digital signage applications with increased lockdown capabilities.
The public preview of Windows 8 is to be released at the Build Developer Conference in San Francisco on the 26th of June, with no official date for the launch proper beyond a vague commitment to releasing the software by the end of the year. Thus far, Microsoft has not addressed rumours suggesting Windows 8.1 will see the company switch to an Apple-style annual release cycle, with Windows 8.2 to follow in late 2014.