The public focus of Windows 8.1 has been on the Start button: Is it coming back, is it like it was, and so on. (The button is coming back, but only as a toggle between the Start screen and the Desktop; there is still no Start menu.) That issue aside, there are other important aspects to Windows 8.1 you should know about, and most of them are in the Enterprise edition, which is available only through Microsoft's Software Assurance progam for businesses.
The standard edition of Windows 8.1, which will be on many PCs sold to individuals, doesn't allow domain joins or support PC control via Group Policy. But the Pro edition supports these Active Directory-based capabiltiies, as does the Enterprise edition. And Windows 8.1 Enterprise has many cool features IT admins will love. See my list below.
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Start Screen Control: This feature allows you to control the look of the Start Screen (such as the placement of app tiles) so that users with corporate-issued devices can find them in consistent locations. After configuring a Start screen's look, you use a PowerShell cmdlet to export that configuration to an XML file, which is then applied to users' PCs via Group Policy, locking down that look. You can provide different configurations for different groups of users and permit some user adjustments if you want.
More BYOD support: The Windows to Go Creator feature allows the easy creation of a fully functional Windows 8.1 system on a USB drive, so users can boot from that stick and carry their enviroment with them, such as for use on a home PC. It's true that Windows to Go is not new to Windows 8.1; Windows 8 had this ability as well. But it makes a lot of sense in a world where users work on both corporate and personal PCs. Along the lines of supporting a mix of personal and corporate PCs, Windows 8.1 adds several capabilities to make that easier. For example, there's now Workplace Join, a middle ground for systems looking to access data that are not domain-joined; Work Folders, for keeping work data separate from personal data; and Web Application Proxy, a Windows Server 2012 R2-dependent feature that essentially provides remote access to corporate Web apps.
Sideloading apps: Sometimes you want to create a Metro app that you don't want to load into the Windows Store for all to play with because it is meant just for your business to use. Windows 8.1 allows the use of such apps without going through the Metro Store, in a technique called "sideloading" that's familiar to Android users. Basically, you can install Metro apps directly using a variety of techniques, including running a few PowerShell commands or using the Deployment Image Servicing and Management Tool for deploying apps to a preview image of Windows 8.1.
Sideloading has seen some controversy, though. The Enterprise edition includes sideloading licenses; Windows 8.1 Pro and Windows 8.1 RT (the tablet-only version of Windows that doesn't support traditional Windows 7 applications) can sideload, but only if you buy sideloading licenses for them. That extra licensing cost will discourage sideloading, making it less likely business will develop internal Metro apps. After all, Software Assurance is not inexpensive, and it has an adminstrative burden, so smaller businesses won't use it. Perhaps Microsoft will create a way to install private Metro apps through the Windows Store, as Apple allows through its Business App Store -- Michael Niehaus, a senior product marketing manager at Microsoft has proposed this very approach -- but until then, businesses are put in a difficult situation.
Putting that controversy aside, these three features in Windows 8.1 Enterprise are great editions that make this version of Windows 8.1 particularly compelling.
This story, "Windows 8.1 Enterprise: 3 features admins should know," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of J. Peter Bruzzese's Enterprise Windows blog and follow the latest developments in Windows at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.