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Microsoft Courts Businesses With Windows 8.1 Reveal

New report suggests Win8 is a no-show in the enterprise. Can Windows 8.1's business-centric features, revealed this week at TechEd, reverse the trend?
Though these new features will probably be welcomed by those who currently use or manage the OS, it's not yet clear if the update will reverse Windows 8's enterprise struggles.

To an extent, it's unsurprising that Win8's corporate adoption trails its overall adoption; businesses rarely rush to migrate to a new platform, usually preferring to wait until a service pack or major update has addressed bugs and improved reliability. Even in this context, though, and despite Microsoft's claims to the contrary, Windows 8 has underperformed. SysAid noted, for example, that Windows 7 had already gobbled up 11.3% of the enterprise market at the same point in its release cycle, compared to the 4.27% rate for Win8 that Net Applications reported in May.

In an interview at TechEd, Brad McCabe, senior product marketing manager of Windows Commercial, said that corporate OS upgrades demand "a lot of nuance" and are usually "customer-by-customer conversations." Still, he projected enthusiasm for Win8.1's chances, and implied that Microsoft is taking a measured approach to the new era of touch-centric computing.

McCade said, for example, that Microsoft's guidance to Windows XP customers is simply "get off XP to a modern operating system." He noted that it doesn't make sense to disrupt businesses' already-in-motion migration plans, most of which involve Windows 7.

McCade said that Microsoft recommends Windows 8 to Windows 7 customers "where it makes sense." He said tablet deployments have been one such area, but also noted that upgrades have also been motivated by the OS's security and virtual desktop infrastructure enhancements. "Each customer has their sweet spot," he explained.

McCade suggested Microsoft is hoping widespread Windows 8 upgrades will occur in 2014, and that customers are encouraged to think about touch-equipped devices as they begin to plan hardware refreshes. Once these devices are more ubiquitous, he said, "we'll probably see Windows 8 spread much broader."

There are several reasons to believe McCade is right, at least to an extent. Windows 8 is still the only platform that offers tablet apps and legacy x86 compatibility in one package. Poor reviews were likely a factor in the OS's inauspicious debut -- but other forces, such as the first touch-equipped Win8 models' prohibitively high prices, were also contributors. Though the jury is still out regarding Win8.1's impact on poor word of mouth, many of the other factors are changing.

Now that device prices are falling, for example, Windows 8's value proposition is much clearer. For evidence, one need look no further than the huge line of people waiting to buy heavily discounted Surface models at TechEd. To be fair, the conference's attendees don't necessarily represent the whims of the larger market, particularly consumers. Nevertheless, the promise of $100 Surface RTs and $300 Surface Pros compelled some attendees to queue up for more than two hours. That's the sort of response that's more typical of Apple's user base. Assuming all those Surfaces don't end up on eBay by next week, that's saying something.

Most of this potential for growth, though, involves mobile devices. Windows 8 offers under-the-hood refinements relative to Windows 7 and its the touch-oriented Modern UI, which many mouse-and-keyboard users have deemed more distracting than useful. Windows 8.1 will address this criticism with a modified version of the start button, which was notoriously omitted from Win8's original version, as well as a boot-to-desktop mode that not only bypasses the new start screen, but should also enable users to avoid using Live Tiles altogether. Nonetheless, it's unclear how successfully Microsoft has mollified the concerns of its core users, or how much Win8.1's undisclosed features will add to the mix.

Aside from the Windows 8.1 news, Microsoft's other announcements at TechEd included Windows Server 2012 RS, System Center 2012 R2, SQL-Server 2014 and updates to Windows Intune.