Walking into this week’s TechEd 2013 conference in New Orleans, I was pretty well versed on many of the announcements that Microsoft would make. I knew about Windows Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012 R2, SQL Server 2014, Visual Studio 2013 and the updates to Windows Azure and Windows Intune. But then Microsoft hit me in the face with a virtual two-by-four: At this year’s show, Microsoft has actually made a reasonable case for Windows 8.1 in business.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Of course Microsoft will continually flog whatever new version of Windows they have regardless of merit. And since this is TechEd, of course the company is going to contrive some business case for the OS.

Of course. But that’s not what’s happening here.

For all the Cloud OS, cloud-first, cloud this and cloud that of TechEd, I’m in some ways most impressed by what is essentially a side-show in a minor upgrade to a release of Windows client that few profess to love and many profess to outright despise. And while I’m not one hundred percent sure why that’s so, I think part of the reason is that it seems so unnecessary. After all, the conventional wisdom is that few businesses would ever adopt Windows 8 anyway, no matter how good it is.

Here’s what’s happening.

Windows 8.1 Free Update

Windows 8.1, in case you’ve not heard, is a coming free update to Windows 8 (and RT) that is akin to a combined service pack and feature pack. I’ve described it in the past as an apology and a mulligan because the initial release of Windows 8 has been met with such incredible resistance. And this isn’t just manufactured hatred from partisan tech bloggers and technology fans, though there’s certainly something to be said about that. No, despite claims of 100 million licenses sold, Windows 8 simply isn’t seeing the real-world usage to match Microsoft’s claims. This is the slowest-ever rollout of a mainstream Windows version, period.

We can debate the reasons, but I think it boils down to a few key points. First, Microsoft made the controversial and aggressive decision to comingling two completely different OSs under a single system, the classic desktop OS (what used to be Windows) and a new touch-first mobile OS I still call Metro. Second, as a 1.0 system, Metro is incomplete and feature-light, and it doesn’t integrate well with the desktop at all. And third, and perhaps most damaging, Microsoft has for the first time provided no way for users to leverage years of experience and utilize previous UIs, perhaps temporarily, until they learn the new stuff.

So here comes Windows 8.1. Microsoft says it is listening to customer feedback now (the apology) and is updating Windows 8 to return some of those missing legacy UIs and appease disgruntled users. And it is essentially re-launching Windows 8 (and its ARM-based cousin Windows RT) with the Windows 8.1 update this year on a new generation of devices and even device types, like smaller mini-tablets (the mulligan).

Microsoft Returning Start Button to Desktop

This is all very obvious, and as Windows 8.1 leaks made the rounds over the past few months, what we saw matched expectations. There are major updates to the Metro features in Windows, maturing the environment to the point where it may actually be usable. Microsoft is returning the Start button to the desktop, where it belongs, and is allowing users to boot to the desktop, as many with traditional PCs would want and expect.

But at TechEd this week, Microsoft for the first time revealed that it is also imbuing Windows 8.1 with a surprising range of business features. And these additions are now challenging the conventional wisdom that businesses would simply skip this generation of software and wait for Windows 9 (or whatever).

I provide a complete rundown of these new features in article In Blue: Business Features in Windows 8.1. Here, what I’d like to focus on is not so much individual features but rather how these features collectively work to make Windows 8.1 enterprise-ready.

One of the big complaints about Windows 8 is that its touch-first user experiences are by definition slight antagonistic in the 1.4 billion non-touch PCs that are out there in the real world today. This is a fair complaint, as are related concerns that Metro UIs like the Charms, Switcher interface, and Start screen keep popping up in front of users who do nothing but use desktop applications.  So I was intrigued to discover that Microsoft is working on two paradoxically opposite goals in Windows 8.1. First, those with tablets and other touch machines will need to see less of the desktop, thanks to more and more Control Panel settings being moved into the Metro PC Settings interface. And second, Windows 8.1 is designed to help those who use the desktop primarily (on traditional PCs) see less of Metro; you can boot directly to the desktop, bypassing the Start screen, for example. And you can configure the renewed Start button to display a customizable list of all your apps instead of the Start screen and live tiles.

Other features in Windows 8.1 are aimed, generally speaking, at ending the friction of using Metro interfaces for work, and this is particularly important in Windows RT, where you cannot install external desktop utilities and applications. So Windows 8.1 will include integrated support for SkyDrive sync, better in-box VPN support (including third party VPNs), integrated management capabilities, not just for Windows Intune, but for third party management solutions, and a new feature called Work Folders that will allow enterprise users to sync their file share-based document libraries to the device a la SkyDrive or SkyDrive Pro. The basic printing capabilities available via Metro today are being enhanced with NFC tap to pair and Wi-Fi Direct printing. And Wi-Fi remote display is being augmented with Miracast wireless display support. There’s just more there.

New Feature: Assigned Access

A new feature called Assigned Access sounds silly on the surface: It lets you configure a PC to run only a single Metro-style app, where the user cannot access system files and other apps. But this feature was driven by the needs of the education market as well as certain vertical businesses. Imagine a show floor retail employee where the ability to access Facebook, the web, or whatever could be problematic. Or a call center employee who literally needs to do one task. (Need more than one app? Look into AppLocker.) Suddenly, a system that was entirely unsuitable in certain situations is now ideal.

Mobile device management functionality is getting a significant boost in this release as well. With Windows 8 and RT, you were basically stuck with basic Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) or the mobile device managements capabilities of Windows Intune. In 8.1, Windows has been updated to support a new open version of the management interfaces that will be explicitly supported by Airwatch and Mobile Iron, and can be adopted by any device management infrastructure. No agent is required: It’s just built-in. And because Windows 8.1 supports Remote Business Data Removal, you can decommission devices on the fly and securely remove corporate data while leaving the user’s personal documents, photos, and other data untouched. Perfect for today’s BYOD world.

Proactive Guidance for Windows 8

With these and the other improvements outlined in that article In Blue: Business Features in Windows 8.1 post, Microsoft is suddenly getting a bit more proactive in its guidance for Windows 8.

First, businesses still on Windows XP need to migrate to modern OS, Microsoft says, and do so before the April 2014 end of support for that aging OS.

Business customers that are deploying Windows 7 should continue doing so, of course. But here’s the new bit: Microsoft says that these customers should now begin evaluating Windows 8 for business tablets as well. And all customers should target touch devices on all form factors for their next hardware refresh. This means desktop PCs as well as portable devices.

A year ago, when Microsoft was talking about getting Windows 8 tablets out into the hands of certain business users, it sounded a bit quaint (and not a little bit crazy). But looking at the maturation in Windows 8.1, I wonder if we’re not suddenly turning the corner. This is a release that will satisfy user demands for hip, touch-oriented portable devices while meeting the management needs of any sized environment. It’s a release that is respectful of the environment—desktop or Metro—you prefer to work in, and it comes with a startlingly long list of new business features.

Suddenly, Windows 8 doesn’t look so crazy after all.