A little over a month from now, Microsoft will kick off its TechEd 2012 trade show in Orlando, Florida and will no doubt make a case for Windows 8 in businesses. This show, perhaps not coincidentally, will come about a week after what the software giant is calling the Windows 8 Release Preview, a near-final, feature-complete look at its next operating system and the first, I think, that will show a very clear picture of what users of all kinds—including businesses—can expect.

Of course, I’ve written about Windows 8 and business before. In March, on the heels of the poorly-named Windows 8 Consumer Preview, I offered up What Does Windows 8 Offer to IT Pros? as part of my voluminous coverage for that release. My blithe, not quite knee-jerk reaction was, “not much, really.” But since then, observing and participating in the online debates about Windows 8, I’ve begun thinking about Windows 8 a bit differently. And when it comes to businesses, I’m starting to come around to the advantages Windows 8 has to offer.

This article is a summary, of sorts, to a talk I gave this past week in Rhode Island called IT Pro Tech Update 2012. And it encapsulates a reimagined view of Windows 8, if you will, for businesses.

Generally speaking, it’s fair to say that businesses will embrace Windows 8 as quickly and as excitedly as they do any other Windows release. Which is to say, not that quickly or with much excitement. This isn’t a reflection on Windows 8 at all. In fact, I’d remind you that Windows 7 adoption in business is going much more slowly than was originally expected. And that release was among the most well-regarded versions of Windows that Microsoft ever shipped.

Not helping matters of course is that a lot of the work in Windows 8 is very clearly aimed at consumers. When IT pros and administrators see the Start screen, they tend to shut down, and in all of the several Windows 8 presentations I’ve given to user groups and at industry events, I’ve seen this same deer in the headlights reaction. It’s like they don’t want to listen to what comes next. They’re just transfixed by what they see as the awfulness of the Start screen, the silly, Fisher Price nature of it.

metro

I’ve made a half-hearted argument in the past that the Start screen, while new and different and therefore something to be feared, could actually be a boon in business. Imagine, for example, a policy-controlled set of tiles, representing only those apps that the user needs to get their job done, creating a dashboard of sorts for their workday. Or an admin console where the tiles could offer live updates about various server resources or whatever.

I suspect we’ll get there. But this isn’t enough to excite IT pros or administrators, at least not now while it’s just basically a theory. So instead of belaboring the point, let’s just move past the Start screen. In fact, let’s just move past the whole Metro-based environment and remember one very salient point. Windows 8 is what I call Windows 7++. It’s not just some of what makes Windows 7 great with some new stuff added on top. It is virtually everything that makes Windows 8 with a lot of new stuff added on top. Windows 8 is a superset of Windows 7. So if you love Windows 7, there’s no reason not to love Windows 8 too.

Yes, yes, I know. The Start screen is in the way, sort of. I get that. But getting by the Start screen is almost certainly only a Group Policy away or, at the very least, a single click or tap (on the Desktop tile) or keyboard shortcut (WINKEY + D). This is not insurmountable. It’s not a showstopper. And it will not require an all-day training seminar.

desktop

Windows 8 ships with (virtually) everything that’s included in Windows 7. It uses the same deployment and management tools, runs the same applications, and it even runs better on the same hardware than does Windows 7. This is all awesome news.

Once you understand this, and once you get over the Start screen or at least come to accept what Microsoft calls its “twin” user interfaces—Metro and desktop—you can more clearly evaluate those new and improved business-oriented features and realize, perhaps, that it’s not a shabby update at all.

Features common to all Windows 8 product editions (including Windows RT)

Exchange ActiveSync. EAS is a Microsoft management infrastructure for non-domain-joined mobile devices that provides a certain level of control using policies. EAS has emerged as a de facto industry standard—even Apple and Google use it—but Windows 8 is Microsoft’s first desktop operating system to fully integrate this technology. It works with the Mail, People, and Calendar apps that are built into Windows 8.

eas

You can learn more about the EAS apps in Windows 8 in my articles Windows 8 Feature Focus: Mail (App Preview), Windows 8 Feature Focus: Calendar (App Preview), and Windows 8 Feature Focus: People (App Preview).

Mobile broadband. In addition to fully supporting Ethernet wired and Wi-Fi wireless networks, Windows 8 adds native, first-class support for 3G and 4G/LTE cellular data networks, or what Microsoft calls mobile broadband. But Windows 8’s support for this network type is far more impressive, as it offers integration with Metro-based carrier software, can be metered to ensure you don’t go over your monthly data limits, and will intelligently hand off to Wi-Fi whenever possible to save you money.

mobilebr

Windows Defender. Microsoft first integrated its Windows Defender anti-malware solution into Windows with Windows Vista but the version in Windows 8 represents a huge leap forward. In this version, Defender also includes the anti-virus (AV) capabilities that are made available separately Microsoft Security Essentials. So Defender is now a full security solution, offering both anti-malware and anti-virus features.

defender

Windows SmartScreen. Internet Explorer 9 introduced a very useful feature called SmartScreen that helped protect users from potentially harmful downloads. SmartScreen works great, but it can only do its thing if you use IE. So in Windows 8, Microsoft has added this functionality to the Windows shell. So if you download a potentially harmful file with another browser (Chrome, Firefox, whatever) or otherwise introduce it to the PC, say via a USB memory stick, the new Windows SmartScreen full-screen experience will fire and provide you with an impossible-to-miss warning.

SmartScreen

File History. Windows and Windows Server have long included a little known and thus little used feature called Previous Versions that would save, literally, previous versions of documents and other data files so that you could “go back in time” and find an older version of an edited file when needed. Apple later popularized this functionality as Time Machine, and while they didn’t get there first, they did offer a much nicer (if spacey) user interface. So in Windows 8, Microsoft has replaced Previous Versions with the more attractive and usable File History. On the other hand, it’s not perfect: It’s off by default, works much better with an external drive or network-based storage location, and is just as hard to find as was Previous Versions.

filehistory

Learn more about File History in my article Windows 8 Feature Focus: File History.

Storage Spaces. (Note: This is the one feature listed in this section that does not work with Windows RT.) One of my favorite Windows 8 features, Storage Spaces provides all of the wonderful functionality from the now-lamented Drive Extender feature of Windows Home Server, but with none of the compatibility issues. That is, it lets you tie two or more physical hard disks together as a redundant pool of storage, complete with drive letter, which can extend far beyond the physical limits of the attached storage. When you do run out of storage, Action Center will simply warn you to plug in another hard disk. Storage Spaces provides the redundancy functionality of RAID but with none of the complexity.

storagespaces

Learn more about Storage Spaces in my article Windows 8 Feature Focus: Storage Spaces.

ISO and VHD/VHDX mounting. In Windows 8, simply double-clicking an ISO or VHD (or the newer VHDX) file will mount that file in the OS, allowing you to access them as if they were real drives. ISO files are mounted as if they were optical disks, which makes sense, and means they are read-only. But VHDs are mounted as if they were hard disks, enabling both Explorer’s disk tools and the ability to read and write to the virtual disks. Both can later be ejected for use elsewhere or to free up the drive letter.

Features that require Windows 8 Pro

Domain join and PC management. Windows 8 Pro or higher is required for domain sign-in and the resultant Group Policy management capabilities. This works exactly as it does in Windows 7.

BitLocker and BitLocker To Go. Microsoft has been offering BitLocker full-disk encryption technologies since Windows Vista, but these features have gotten easier in each release, with BitLocker To Go (for external disks) added in Windows 7. In Windows 8, the management interface for BitLocker and BitLocker To Go is still an Explorer-based control panel, but there are new Metro-based interfaces for accessing protected disks.

bitlocker

Virtualization. Where Windows 7 had a fairly weak type-2 hypervisor solution called Windows Virtual PC, Windows 8 brings the full power of the type-1 hypervisor Hyper-V 3.0 from Windows Server. As such, it’s tailored more to software/developer/test than to application compatibility, as was Virtual PC, especially with the XP Mode add-on. But it offers dramatically better performance and, of course, full compatibility with Hyper-V in Windows Server, both from both VHD/X and management perspectives.

hyperv-copy

Learn more about Hyper-V in my article Windows 8 Feature Focus: Client Hyper-V.

Windows 8 also includes an interesting Boot to VHD feature that lets you boot a virtual disk with your physical PC. Today, this feature appears to be used most frequently to dual-boot pre-release versions of Windows 8 with Windows 7, but I can’t imagine this is the intended use. I suspect Boot to VHD would be a good solution for lab environments and for enterprises that wish to provide transient PC set ups for temporary workers.

Remote desktop host. While any version of Windows 8 (including Windows RT) provides a Remote Desktop (Metro-style) client (and Windows 8 includes the legacy Remote Desktop Connection (mstsc.exe) utility, you will need Windows 8 Pro or higher to host a remote desktop session.

Features that require Windows 8 Enterprise

Windows 8 Enterprise brings a number of useful features to the mix, including two very new and important features: Windows To Go and Metro-style app deployment.

Windows To Go lets you install Windows 8 on a USB memory stick (or HDD), providing a highly portable Windows environment that includes all of your data, settings, and installed apps and applications. (At least that’s the theory. I’ve had horrible performance issues with Windows To Go during the beta and will reserve judgment until I’ve seen a more stable version.)

Metro-style app deployment will allow enterprises to bypass the normal requirement that any and all apps must be found, downloaded, and installed from the Windows Store. Using a side-loading technique, enterprises will be able to deploy Metro-style apps within their own environments securely.

Additionally, Windows 8 Enterprise includes improvements to VDI (including with Windows RT, which, when you think about it, is the ultimate thin client), DirectAccess, BranchCache, AppLocker, and other technologies that have been around for several years.

Features that are unique to Windows RT

ARM-based tablets and devices running Windows RT come with several interesting and unique capabilities that set them apart from other PCs and devices running Windows 8. They also come with some interesting and unique limitations.

No upgrades. Windows RT doesn’t support upgrading, as there were no previous versions of Windows RT. Instead, you will acquire this system with new device purchases only. There is no way to buy the software.

Missing features. Windows RT does not include Windows Media Player or Storage Spaces, two features common to all other Windows 8 editions.

Legacy Windows applications. Does not run legacy x86 Windows applications. This could be a huge issue for many businesses, so choose carefully.

No Windows 8 Pro features. Windows RT does not provide any of the features that are unique to Windows 8 Pro, and there’s no way to upgrade the system to add those features.

Management. Windows RT will support a unique System Center-based management scheme that sits functionally halfway between EAS and AD/Group Policy. Information about this capability is sadly vague at this time. (We don’t even know what it’s called.)

Office 15. Interestingly, Windows RT will ship with four Office 15 applications—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. These will be desktop applications, not Metro-style apps.

Wrapping up

While Windows 8 is obviously a killer upgrade for consumers, especially those who have been swayed by the iPad but would prefer a Windows-based tablet or hybrid device, it’s a great upgrade for businesses too. While many of us get wrapped up in controversial but inconsequential topics like the removal of the Start button or the change in how we access commands like Shut down or Restart, once we get past these debates, a clearer picture emerges. And while Windows 8, like Windows 7, doesn’t include a single big-bang feature that puts it over the top for any customer group, it does include dozens of very useful features that, together, add up to something special. This is, I think, as true for businesses as it is for consumers.