Microsoft touts new hybrid work features in updates to Windows 11

Microsoft today made a flurry of announcements about new features in Windows 11 and other apps and services, saying the tweaks are designed to better support hybrid work environments.

The announcements, most of which appear to be incremental upgrades, came as part of the company’s “Windows Powers the Future of Hybrid Work” virtual event.

The most noteworthy change will deliver tighter integration between Windows 11 and Windows 365, Microsoft’s cloud-based PC virtualization service. Referred to by some as “desktop as a service” (DaaS), Microsoft calls Windows 365 its “Cloud PC” — as in, users get a full Windows experience that can replace the Windows desktop on a PC.

Last August, Microsoft announced the general availability of its Windows 365/Cloud PC service, which securely streams the full Windows experience — including all apps, data, and settings — to a user’s personal or corporate devices.

Through Windows 365, Microsoft is taking a big step toward bringing Windows to the cloud, according to Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer for Windows & Devices.

Integrations also include Windows 365 Switch, a feature that allows users to move between a Cloud PC instance and an actual desktop PC with a single click. Windows 365 Boot allows users to boot straight to a Windows 365 Cloud PC in just one step. And Windows 365 Offline will eventually allow users to work offline and then automatically resync without losing data once they’re back online.

“Synchronizing with the local PC would be of most use to those that occasionally need to work offline, but as more information is released there will be a clearer picture of costs, security, and use cases,” said Stu Downes, an analyst at research firm Gartner covering workplace infrastructure and operations. “IT leaders will need to be clear on the use cases for offline synchronization, given that a prime reason many organizations use VDI/DaaS is to avoid any data at rest on the endpoint.”

Downs said it’s encouraging, however, to see Microsoft continue to invest and drive new capabilities for DaaS with Windows 365.

“The continued emphasis and focus on virtualization from Microsoft gives commercial clients confidence to invest in Desktop as a Service,” he said. “Gartner data shows that 72% of IT leaders plan to increase investment in DaaS.”

Panay said the new upgrades are just the beginning of Windows and Microsoft cloud integration.

Many of the other announcements Microsoft made look more like incremental tweaks billed as future of work-oriented tools, and Microsoft remained vague about when the upgrades would be generally available. Some, such as Voice Clarity and Voice Focus, are expected to launch in the next “few months.”

Microsoft framed its videoconferencing upgrades around the use of artificial intelligence (AI), saying the upcoming features automatically frame a PC’s camera to refocus on a speaker, even if they move around. Voice clarity, voice focus, and background blur are all designed to reduce visual and audio distractions in the background.

One new AI-based feature is called “eye contact”; it’s aimed at improving eye contact during virtual meetings and video calls so that attendees appear to be staring at the camera instead of down or away from it.

The features have been implemented in conferencing solutions (including Teams) in various degrees for the past two years, said Stephen Kleynhans, a vice president at research firm Gartner.

“Indeed, Teams led the way with many of these features,” Kleynhans said. “What is changing here is that these capabilities are moving into the OS, which in theory makes them more consistent, and better tuned to the specific capabilities of the device.

“It should also make them available across all the different conferencing and communications tools we use daily.  Eventually this should help with the problems that everybody has when switching between different conferencing tools in different meetings throughout the day.”

Microsoft’s Windows 365/Cloud PC is a cloud-based virtualization service that builds on top of — and complements — Azure Virtual Desktop. Windows 365 allows users to bring their Windows 10 or Windows 11 desktop, apps, tools, data, and settings to non-Windows devices, including PCs, Macs, iPads, Linux devices, and Android devices. Microsoft has positioned Windows 365/Cloud PC as ideally suited for hybrid work scenarios like remotely onboarding/offboarding employees, dialing up (and down) compute capacity, securing environments from the cloud, and supporting growing and contracting workforces — including those in front-line work situations.

Microsoft also announced upgrades to File Explorer, its tool to allow users to quickly find files and pin them under specific tabs, bringing what used to take six clicks down to one, according to Panay. 

“The redesigned, cloud-powered File Explorer makes it easier to find what you’re looking for, allowing you to see all files in one centralized place,” Panay said.

Windows 11 will also add “contextual suggestions” powered by Context IQ to recommend relevant content and contacts across Windows — including content to the cloud.

“For example, I can see what files I might want, including files that my frequent collaborators are working on that I also have access to,” Wangui McKelvey, general manager for Microsoft 365, explained in a blog post. “With Tabs in File Explorer, I’ll be able to multitask and find multiple files at the same time.”

The addition of tabs allows for multiple folders to be open in one window. The Tabs feature was initially tested in Windows 10 apps, under a feature called “Sets,” which included support for tabs inside File Explorer and tabs in every Windows app. The technology was never incorporated into Windows 10.

“The File Explorer tabs thing is really user specific,” Kleynhans said. “Some people love tabs and find it an easier cleaner way to organize what they are doing. Others prefer multiple windows. The real point here is that now you have the choice.”

There are some tasks, such as dragging and dropping files between locations, that work well in a “windowed mode,” Kleynhans said.

“Tabs, on the other hand, should give you the ability to have pinned locations that you can quickly jump to (a work tab, or a project tab, or even a personal tab),” he said. “How well this works in practice is going to depend on the details of the implementation, which we haven’t seen yet.”