Microsoft just delivered Windows 8.1 (Fig. 1). Windows Embedded 8.1 has also been released. It has been in beta for ages and the RTM (release to manufacturing) version has been available as well so developers and MSDN users have had plenty of time to check out the latest features. At first glance, it looks like the original Windows 8 that was released last year but there is more under the hood as well as a number of user interface changes.
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I gave Windows 8 a Best of 2012 award last year (see Windows 8 Goes Far Beyond The Typical Operating-System Update). It will not get another this year because 8.1 is more of a refinement compared to the radical change of Windows 8.
Many were put off by the Windows 8 user interface and I even utilized a third party application that returned the Start button and menu. Windows 8.1 restores the Start button from the desktop mode but it brings users back to the main tiled screen. Luckily those third party applications still work so if you want the menu it can be used.
Most complaints about Windows 8 had to do with the user interface. From a platform perspective it has turned out to be a solid and secure operating system which is why I gave it the original award. Windows 8.1 builds on that base.
Windows 8.1 has a lot more applications that can make use of edges and charms. If you have not used Windows 8, especially with a touch interface, then edges and charms may not make sense. Swiping along the edges of the screen presents menus and switch between applications depending upon the edge. Charms are simply menu icons but the name sounds cool.
Charms can also be linked to contracts implemented by applications. Applications that implement the same contract can interact with each other. The underlying infrastructure is a bit more complex from a programming standpoint.
Touch has become even more important and Internet Explorer (IE) 11 (Fig. 2) has been optimized to take advantage of this support. Other IE changes include better password capture and management support along with support for APIs like Do-Not-Track and Web Cryptography. It also has better support for World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Pointer Events specification that makes IE 11 work a little different than IE 11. Pointer events allow hardware agnostic pointer input for devices like a mouse, stylus, or touch screen.
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Like much of Windows 8.1, IE 11 has additional changes for developers. WebGL support provides improved 2D and 3D support. Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) are supported and there have been improvements to the canvas element.
IE developers will be familiar with the F12 developer tools. These are for working with web page design in conjunction with IE viewing. It has been completely redesigned so it can now handle keyboards without function keys. The user interface is cleaner as well.
A new version of Visual Studio 2013 has also been released. Stay tuned for more information on improvements for that toolset.
Windows Embedded 8.1 and Windows Embedded 8.1 Industry are also available. These are the componetized versions for developers that want to deliver solutions based on Windows but customized to their applications. It also lets developers lock down a system. The configuration tools have been enhanced. They provide access to enterprise management support for features like DirectAccess, BrancheCache, Enterprise Sideloading, and AppLocker,
Windows Embedded 8.1 provides access to the advanced sensor support that is not available under versions of Windows prior to Windows 8 (see Sensor Fusion Or Sensor Confusion?). This includes platforms like Microsoft's Surface tablets (see Microsoft's Tablet Surfaces).
Windows 8.1 also introduces DirectX 11.2. This includes features like GPU overlay support, DirectX tiled resources and composition XAML visuals.
There is a lot more for Windows developers to discover if they have not already been using them with the RTM version. Windows 8.1 may not have had the fanfare that Windows 8 did but it is likely to be more successful and definitely easier for developers to work with.