Many Windows 8.1 announcements have focused on changes to the desktop, so it is only natural to wonder how the new release will affect tablet users. Like many things in IT, however, there really isn't a simple answer to the question. Windows 8.1's impact will differ based on tablet model.
Users of X86 and X64 tablets can expect the same experience and feature set they would get from a desktop or laptop running the new OS. For more information on that see my blog post In Windows 8.1, Small Changes Make a Big Difference.
Users of Windows RT tablets, such as the Microsoft Surface RT, will receive similar benefits. For example, Surface RT systems will get the new start button and the ability to boot to the desktop. Although Microsoft is not planning to add domain-joining capabilities to Surface RT, it has conceded to customer demands by adding Microsoft Outlook to Surface RT. There is no official word about whether other missing Microsoft Office features (such as macro support) will be added to Surface RT 8.1.
The other big new feature that should prove to be useful to Windows RT users is SkyDrive integration. SkyDrive is soon to be deeply integrated into both Windows 8 and Windows RT, a topic I will cover in a future blog. There are new options to save or synchronize data to SkyDrive. Better yet, it is going to be possible to sync your device settings to SkyDrive so that you can have a consistent experience across your Windows 8 and Windows RT devices. You will be able to synchronize the start screen, app set, etc.
I plan to delve into SkyDrive integration in depth later. Right now, I want to reiterate a point. I mentioned that Windows RT tablets will not support domain joining, even after the Windows 8.1 update. Why is that?
Microsoft isn't offering domain-joining capabilities for RT because of the BYOD trend. Surface has long been considered a consumer device. As such, Microsoft's plan is to treat workplace usage of Surface tablets similarly to that of iPads and other tablets.
Of course, there is no way to domain-join an iPad, which makes management tricky. Microsoft's solution is a new Windows Server 2012 feature called Workplace Joins. Workplaces can be thought of as a next-generation alternative to domains. Users are able to download a special app from the Windows or Apple Store and use that app to join the device to the corporate network. An authentication mechanism keeps unauthorized users from performing Workplace Joins.
Once a tablet has been joined to the workplace, it is provisioned with any apps, digital certificates, or other items that corporate IT makes available to BYOD users. The cool thing about Workplace Joins is that users can deprovision their devices at any time. Upon doing so, anything installed by corporate IT will be removed from the device, but the user's personal items will remain in place. This is far different from the full device-wipe approach that is so often used today.
Ultimately, I expect Windows 8.1 and Windows Server 2012 will be transformational for tablet users. The update will make Windows more of a "cloud-ready OS" through its SkyDrive integration. However, I think that the most profound effects will be felt through Windows Workplaces and BYOD.