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Jul 21 2014

Back to the Future: Microsoft Launches Windows Apportals

Have you ever felt outsmarted by the flat Start Screen of Windows 8 and 8.1? In that case, the developers from Redmond have good news for you: the new Windows Apportal app enables users to (re-)organize data and applications in a hierarchical fashion and brings back some traditional logic to the touch-optimized Modern User Interface.

Hardly a day goes by without even experienced Windows users complaining about the pitfalls of Microsoft's decision to give its latest operating system a completely new look. For a good while, the company has tried to dismiss this type of reproof, suggesting that the critics were just extremely hard-nosed traditionalists who failed to appreciate the deeper benefits of the change. However, with Windows 8.1 arriving in offices around the world, it soon became evident that the flat hierarchy that places all tiles side by side on the Start Screen doesn't sit particularly well with employees who are willing to adapt to a touch-based environment, but would still like to retain a structured and well-organized approach to their work. Consequently, the Windows team opted to bring back a dose of the "old" logic to the Modern UI, more specifically: "to introduce the same nested folder structure common in a desktop OS to the modern mobile OS," writes Senior Product Marketing Manager Ben Hunter on the official Windows Blog.

But to comply with the overarching concept of a mobile OS, the developers couldn't simply redesign the Start Screen. Instead, they had to find a way that would not deviate too much from the underlying design principles as well as from Satya Nadella's mobile first mantra. That's how they came up with Windows Apportal, which – according to Hunter – "is a Windows 8.1 app that can integrate your entire Line of Business (LOB) stack into a single, modern, touch-based experience." So in essence, he continues, Windows Apportals provide "'on-the-glass' integration for the wide variety of heterogeneous LOB apps that exist in organizations today, including legacy Windows 7 Desktop Applications; newer Modern Windows 8 apps; and Web Applications." Or in other words, Apportals turn the Start Screen into a kind of portal that offers fast access to data and IT resources in pretty much the same way that the deceased Start Menu did. What the end user gets to see is a set of so-called Tile Groupings that take on the role of folders or app icons from the classic Windows desktop and menu and bring together Desktop Applications (e.g. Microsoft Office minus Outlook), Modern Apps (Lync, Skype, OneDrive, Yammer, and Outlook), Embedded Apps (enterprise-specific applications implemented as OS functions, e.g. CRM tools), Grid Tiles for streaming information, and Pinned Links for access to resources like trainings or travel information.

Since the main task of an Apportal is to pull together all essential applications and data users need from inside their Windows 8.1 environment, it relies heavily on Active Directory for providing role-based access to applications and data sources. For administrators, this means they can use existing, company-wide authentication and authorization policies to determine which data and Grid Tiles employees are entitled to see. From Hunter's perspective, this high level of customization is particularly helpful in environments like sales and healthcare organizations and enterprises with a large network of branch offices; here, Windows Apportals could serve to "filter, share, and display data and functionality based on job role, organization, industry, and even geography – thereby enabling users to stay focused on the specific tools and information they need to do their job."

Conclusion: Judging from the brief descriptions on the Windows Blog and the product page, Windows Apportals seem like a sensible extension that makes it easier to combine classic, task-based workflows with the touch-optimized Modern UI that's supposed to work as a unifying element across all hardware platforms and OS editions. However, the question remains whether it made much sense to curb direct user access to data and standard desktop applications in the first place only to find that two years later you're forced to bring back the very same functionality through the backdoor.


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