Wed Feb 4, 2009 5:31PM EST
Remember when Vista was announced, and Microsoft decided to release six different versions of the operating system, much to the confusion, disappointment, and ridicule of potential buyers? Well guess what? Microsoft is back with the Windows 7 strategy. What has it learned in the last three years? Pretty much nothing.
While Microsoft is touting the "two primary editions" of Windows 7 -- a Home Premium edition and a Professional (intended for business) edition -- the fact is it's sticking with the same six different versions (or SKUs, stock-keeping units) that it had for Vista.
The real difference is that Windows 7 Home Basic -- the much-reviled stripped-down version of Vista that was designed for bare-bones PCs -- is now being shunted to emerging markets only, though it will still exist. But to confuse matters, a Windows 7 Starter edition, which will run only three applications simultaneously, will also be available.
Also a glimmer of hope: Home Premium will have most of the same features you're used to in Vista Home Premium, but the new Windows 7 Professional is a nice improvement over Vista Business Edition in that Windows 7 Pro will include all of the features from Home Premium (including Media Center and gaming capabilities), plus some other business-centric extras. If there's a bright spot in this news, it's that the Pro version finally looks enticing, unlike the neutered business version of Vista that was pawned off on workplaces two years ago.
But Microsoft blows it again with two more SKUs, again offering an Enterprise and Ultimate version of Windows 7, both containing features that ought to be included off the shelf in Windows 7 Professional. That means nickel-and-diming buyers once again in order to get the BitLocker encryption system.
Microsoft touts the new SKU structure as a "streamlining" of its product line, but I'm having trouble seeing how the Windows 7 lineup is much of an improvement. Things seemed to work pretty well with XP's two versions -- and the Mac folks get along fine with just one. But in an attempt to wring every last dollar out of every last customer, Microsoft again sticks us with a complicated version nightmare that no one's going to like. Is the honeymoon over already? Dang.
Engadget has a helpful comparison guide to the six versions here.
Update: Many people have written to emphasize that Windows 7 will only be available to consumers in three retail versions. While it's accurate that only three shrinkwrapped versions will be available, it's quite likely that your average user will have access to five different versions: Millions of users will use Enterprise at the office and millions more will encounter Starter on a netbook (the fastest-growing portion of the computer market). Faced then with Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate editions on a standard PC, the options quickly become overwhelming when, really, two or even one version of the software would have sufficed. Also note that I am still enthusiastic about Windows 7 on its merits -- I simply think that the version proliferation should be rethought.