What Does Windows 8 Offer to IT Pros?

This probably isn't news, but last week Microsoft released the long-awaited Windows 8 Consumer Preview, as well as the related Windows Server 8 Beta. If that's news to you, or if you've simply been ignoring the news on purposes, I implore you to check out my exhaustive coverage on theSuperSite for Windows. And I'm not just tooting my own horn here. In just 5 days, I published over 30 articles, blog posts, and screenshot galleries about Windows 8. Chances are, if you want to know something about this release, I've covered it.
(OK, you probably need a bit more guidance than that, I know. Over the weekend, I published a recap called " 8 Days a Week: The Consumer Preview Arrives," which covers most of the relevant material.)
But I'm not here to talk about the past, or what's already written. Instead, I'd like to address one of the pressing big topics around these releases, a topic that should be of particular audience to Windows IT Pro readers. And it goes like this: What advantages, if any, does Windows 8 offer to businesses?
It's a fair question, frankly.
And to be clear, when it comes to Windows 8, it's gotta be in the top two. (The other, which I'll try to address later, is whether the strange dual user experiences in Windows 8 -- the Metro-style environment and the classic Windows desktop -- are an advantage or a disadvantage.)
Of course, this question comes up with every Windows version. But it's particularly the case with Windows 8, because this OS, very clearly, is aimed very much at consumers. That is, the vast majority of the changes in this version involve the work done to make the new Windows Runtime, which sits behind the Metro environment and its full-screen Start screen and apps.
Yes, Metro could (and no doubt will) be used in business scenarios, and I'm sure a key consideration with this design was to help halt the move of iPads into the workplace. But Metro, like the iPad, and like today's smartphones, is aimed squarely at consumers first. It just is.
So with that in mind, what does Windows 8 deliver for businesses?
Not much, frankly, although Microsoft tells me the company will expand on its Windows 8 business features later this month at CeBIT. Here's what Microsoft is pushing so far.
Windows To Go. Not currently available in the Consumer Preview (at least not easily), Windows To Go lets you run Windows 8 on a USB device like a memory stick or portable hard drive. It's supposed to boot in about 20 seconds, can be encrypted with BitLocker, and provides a portable and secure way to bring your entire computing environment with you -- including your data, settings, and apps. It sounds great. But it's not in the Consumer Preview.
Secure Boot and Measured Boot. These new security features require an UEFI-type BIOS and thus very new hardware, but they fulfill the secure boot promises of Longhorn by preventing rootkit-style malware from starting before Windows boots and validating a PC's integrity against a remote service.
Windows Defender. Speaking of security, Windows 8 finally includes a full antivirus solution in addition to the anti-malware technology that debuted in Windows Vista. It's implemented as part of Windows Defender, and if you've been using the free but previously separate Microsoft Security Essentials, you get the idea: They're basically identical. (And yes, you can remove Defender, as before, and implement a third-party security solution.)
SmartScreen. Microsoft implemented a useful SmartScreen feature in Internet Explorer 9 last year, protecting users against malicious downloads. In Windows 8, this feature has also been added to the Explorer file system, providing the same protection against malicious files that may come in via other browsers or perhaps from a USB memory stick.
Metered mobile broadband integration. Windows 8 provides integrated support for cellular-style data connections, much as previous Windows versions integrated Wi-Fi connections. But because of the unique nature of these cellular data connections, Windows 8 will immediately offload to a faster (and less expensive) network type when available and provides tools for minimizing data usage and, on metered accounts, ensuring you don't go over the limit.
Beyond that you'll see improvements to the usual culprits: new Active Directory Domain Services capabilities around activation, Group Policy and DirectAccess, BitLocker encryption, AppLocker application whitelisting and blacklisting. And . . . Well, that's about it.
Now before any complaining begins, the one thing I'd remind people is that Windows 8 is of course a superset of the functionality in Windows 7. So it's not like you're losing anything. But while it's hard to imagine many businesses aggressively courting Windows 8 because of any of the aforementioned features and capabilities, certainly mixing and matching Windows 7 and Windows 8 will be common for years to come.
In fact, if Windows 8 has a problem with businesses, it's that its predecessor, Windows 7, was almost too good. I'm not the first, I'm sure, to suggest that Windows 7 is like the next Windows XP in that way, and that we'll be dealing with widespread use of this OS several years down the road.
Of course, from Microsoft's perspective, this won't matter. A Windows license sale is a Windows license sale. And I think the company is going to see huge uptick on the consumer side thanks to the fun focus on Metro and full-screen, touch-happy Metro-style apps. So you'll excuse them for taking a mulligan with businesses this time around. Frankly, they need more help on that side of the fence anyway.
And what about Windows Server 8, which was released in beta form at the same time as the Windows 8 Consumer Preview?
I'll look at that next week.

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