In this month’s column, a peek at two product lines that aren’t discussed much in the context of the “Blue” wave of product updates: Windows Server Essentials and Windows Phone.

Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials

Last month, I wrote about the advances in the Preview version of the Windows 8.1 update for Windows 8 and Windows RT and noted that the combination of many small improvements resulted in a dramatically better experience than the initial releases of those OSs. But the Windows 8.1 Preview wasn’t the only OS software that Microsoft debuted last month. The firm also released preview versions of Windows Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012 R2, and SQL Server 2014, the first two of which should ship at roughly the same time as Windows 8.1 this fall. (SQL Server 2014 will hit early next year, I’m told.)

While others here at Windows IT Pro are busily probing the depths of these three products, I’d like to focus on an offshoot of Windows Server 2012 R2 called Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials, which is also now available in Preview form. You might recognize this product as the latest version of a release that was intended to replace Windows Small Business Server. But with the R2 release, it’s become so much more than that.

The Essentials product line, as we now know it, debuted with Windows Server 2012, and as you might recall, Microsoft at the time had significantly simplified the Server family of products down to just four SKUs: Standard, Datacenter, Essentials, and Foundation. The first two, Standard and Datacenter, offer identical feature sets and differ only in pricing and virtualization rights: Datacenter supports unlimited virtualized instances of the product on the same hardware, but Standard supports just two.

The other two are interesting and hit the low end of the market. Foundation is the entry-level product and supports just 15 users and offers no virtualization rights; the only way to acquire this version is with new low-end server hardware. Essentials, meanwhile, has bigger shoes to fill: It's aimed at small businesses with up to 25 users and has no virtualization rights. But it's a replacement for many previous products, including Windows Home Server, Windows Small Business Server (both Standard and Essentials), and Windows Storage Server Essentials.

In R2 guise, Essentials takes on a far greater role, moving up-market to support mid-sized businesses and integrating with key Microsoft online services such as Office 365. It also supports more platform technologies, including those that are new to Windows Server 2012 R2 as well as unique support for Hyper-V based virtualization, as you’ll see.

From a high level, Essentials R2 looks and works much like its predecessor, offering a friendly Dashboard admin console that most small businesses can use in lieu of the more complicated (and complete) Windows Server tools, though the full set is available as well for those that need it. The Dashboard features five main areas—Home, Users, Devices, Storage, and Applications—and more can be added by integrating with supported Microsoft online services or by installing add-ins.

As with the initial version of the software, the Dashboard assumes no admin expertise—indeed, the key target market of small businesses is understood to have no such personnel on site—and a clear set of Getting Started tasks such as Add user account, Add server folder, and Set up Anywhere access is presented up front so the server can be quickly configured.

But there are some new features. First, R2 can integrate directly with Office 365, Windows Azure Backup, Windows Intune, or an on-premises Exchange Server out of the box, and Health Report functionality is built right in. In the initial Essentials 2012 release, only Office 365, Azure Backup, and Health Report were available, and then only after the fact by installing add-ins.

If you’re familiar with Essentials 2012, you’ll notice that the R2 version offers deeper integration with other platform features. If you integrate the local server with Office 365, you can now manage Exchange Online distribution groups, SharePoint Online libraries, and mobile devices directly from the Dashboard. Server folders support quotas, and you can now add folders from a second server in your environment to the server’s shared folders. It integrates with BranchCache for the first time.

But there are even bigger changes under the hood. Essentials R2 can be installed directly to a physical server, as before, or to a virtual machine (VM) in Hyper-V Server on top of a physical installation of the server. (Previously, Essentials didn’t even include Hyper-V support.) That latter installation type enables several Hyper-V-, Azure-, and externally-hosted online services and features to offer deeper insight and integration capabilities with Essentials R2 and was a major feature request of server makers who want to provide their own value-added services on top of the product. Microsoft tells me that certain Azure services will require or work better with VM-hosted OSs and will thus open up new possibilities inside the Microsoft sphere as well. On site, you can take advantage of Hyper-V’s Live Migration and Replica functionality.

Essential R2’s move to the mid-sized business world is accomplished by a similarly intriguing change: With Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard and Datacenter, you can now install Essentials as a role called Windows Server Essentials Experience, providing all of the unique Essentials features—online services integration, simple PC and device management with centralized backup and File History integration, simple storage management, and more—to bigger businesses of up to 300 employees. So if you’ve started out with a small business version of Office 365 and Essentials, you can move up the stack and continue using the tools you’re familiar with.

I’m currently using Essentials 2012 as the center of my own home-based business and will be migrating to Essentials R2 when the final version arrives later this year. In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away at the Preview release and see what else I can find. But so far, this is stacking up to be a pretty impressive release that improves on the core feature set, broadens the availability to larger businesses, and integrates with key online services. Not bad for an R2 release.

Windows Phone 8.1 and More

When Microsoft launched Windows Phone three years ago, it promised to continually update the product with new features and work with carriers to ensure that users wouldn’t suffer from an Android-like uncertainty regarding the timing of these updates. Since then, of course, we’ve discovered that Windows Phone users are indeed second-class citizens in the eyes of the wireless carriers, and update delivery, always problematic, has slowed to a crawl. This behavior has affected Windows Phone 8 in obvious ways and plays a role in the delay of the Windows Phone 8.1 update, which one might have assumed would otherwise arrive alongside Windows 8.1 and the other many Microsoft product updates that will ship later this year.

So what happened? According to my sources, phone updates are complex and expensive to the carriers, so they like to do as little of it as possible, given Windows Phone’s relatively small user base, and bundle several updates together for a single test and deploy phase. And this reluctance has essentially pushed back Microsoft’s planned Windows Phone 8 updates over time.

These include three sets of relatively minor Windows Phone 8 software updates called GDRs (or General Distribution Releases). GDR1, code-named Portico (back when the Windows Phone team was still using code names that ended in ‘o,’ a practice that has since mysteriously ceased), first arrived in very late 2012 and added some fixes for messaging, text replies to calls, Internet Explorer, Wi-Fi connectivity, and other features. Its messy delivery to different device types on different carriers over several months ended up being a harbinger of events to come.

GDR2 was completed in April but didn’t arrive at first until July on two new phones, the Lumia 925 and Lumia 1020. At the time of this writing, it’s expected to start shipping to existing handsets over July and August. This update adds support for CalDAV and CardDAV (now required for Gmail contacts and Google Calendar interoperability) and Data Sense and returns the FM radio back to compatible handsets. It also adds fixes for Xbox Music, Skype, Internet Explorer, the camera, and other features.

GDR3, originally expected in time for the fall, will likely ship closer to the end of the year. Although I have no personal sources for this release, rumors suggest it will include support for so-called “phablet” handsets with 5-to-6-inch screens and 1080p (1920 x 1080) resolution. If true, that’s most certainly the release that will serve at the center of Microsoft’s (and Nokia’s) fall 2013 plans. In the previous three years, of course, Microsoft delivered a major new Windows Phone release each October.

It’s not all bad news. Microsoft also revealed that it has doubled the new support lifecycle for Windows Phone 8 software updates of 36 months, doubled the previous lifecycle of 18 months, making it a lot friendlier for enterprises. But that schedule is also a hint that Windows Phone 8 won’t be updated very quickly. Previous versions of Windows Phone were replaced within a year. With Windows Phone 8, we could be looking at a long haul of mostly minor changes.

That said, looking ahead to 2014, we do know that at least two major updates are coming. The only questions are the timing and whether carriers will allow them through in a timely fashion. If there’s anything worse than no software updates, it’s knowing that updates exist that you can’t get.

The first is an Enterprise Feature Pack that Microsoft plans to ship in the first half of 2014, adding features that its enterprise customers say are still missing from Windows Phone 8. These include S/MIME to sign and encrypt email; app-aware, auto-triggered VPN (as in Windows 8.1 on PCs) for access to corporate resources behind the firewall; enterprise Wi-Fi support with EAP-TLS; enhanced Mobile Device Management (MDM) policies that will work across Intune as well as third-party device management solutions; and certificate management for user authentication enrollment, updating, and revocation.

And then of course there’s Windows Phone 8.1. As with GDR3, I’ve not heard anything about this release directly, but rumors claim it will close the gap with Windows 8/RT/8.1 from functional and usability and SDK/API perspectives and will possibly include such changes as a notification center, better multitasking (with explicit app shutdown), and various changes to the built-in apps. But it’s pretty clear that Windows Phone 8.1 is still some time away, and it seems that the release keeps getting pushed back. Certainly, details are murky.

There are further rumors of yet another Windows Phone “reset” for Windows Phone 9, which could very well be just another version of Windows but aimed at handsets. This makes plenty of sense to me given the improvements we see in Windows 8.1, which fully supports portrait mode, and in Windows RT guise in particular would make for a fine phone OS. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We don’t even have GDR2 yet.

What’s interesting is that Windows Phone 8 still stacks up really well against the iPhone and Android competition, especially Nokia’s latest devices, such as the Lumia 1020, which sports an amazing DSLR-like 41 megapixel camera. But it’s hard to overlook how great an advantage this platform could have if the wireless carriers would simply allow Microsoft to deliver updates to users.