Making sense of Microsoft

3 Feb 2009
Windows 7 versions
Windows 7 versions

Just when I thought Microsoft had seen sense, just when I thought it had learned from the multitude of mistakes surrounding Vista, it does this. Rather than reduce the number of versions of Windows, it ups the number to six. And what's more, the versions don't make sense.

I'll qualify that a little. The MS press release says, "Windows 7 will have two main SKUs [versions]: Windows 7 Home Premium and Windows 7 Professional. This is where we will focus our marketing and communication across consumers and business customers."

In other words, the only ads you'll see paid for directly or indirectly by Microsoft (including adverts for new computers) will include one of those operating systems. The rest will be hidden away from mainstream view.

I'm sure that, sitting in the Microsoft boardroom when all this was decided, that did in fact make sense. Because when you're sitting in a lovely clean boardroom sipping your decaf espresso, it feels like you're in control of what the world will do. The terrible truth is, you're not.

Because in reality, it's consumers and manufacturers that make decisions over what they buy. Acer, Dell, HP - they're the ones that will decide which versions of the operating system go onto their netbooks, not Microsoft. Just like Acer derided Vista Home Basic as a sub-OS, declaring "Premium is the real Vista", so they'll decide what to load onto their machines.

But let's take a look at the different versions and see if we can work out the real reasons Microsoft opted for them.

Windows 7 Home Basic

"...the entry-level SKU for value PCs in emerging markets, meant for accessing the internet and running basic productivity applications."

Now, you can only get this in emerging markets, so theoretically you won't find it in the UK at all. Except maybe Norfolk. But one of the features MS has stripped out is multi-touch, despite the fact that the latest PCs aimed at "emerging markets" from the likes of the OLPC project and Intel's Classmate PC actually include a touchscreen.

What possible value is there in stripping out this feature? Why not just have one Windows 7 Home - which everyone will understand - and ship that everywhere?

The only reason that makes any sense is cost - that by stripping out features MS can charge more to the rest of the world. But even then, why is it called Home Basic? Why not just roll it into Windows 7 Starter? Talking of which...

Windows 7 Starter

"'Starter' is a limited functionality SKU with an application limit designed for small notebook PCs in all markets", goes the fluff.

In other words, Microsoft has stripped out even more features than you'll find in Home Basic. No live thumbnail previews, no ad-hoc wireless networks, no Mobility Center.

In fact, you'll only be able to use three applications at the same time. Rather like Vista with 1GB of RAM (boom boom).

The reason surely isn't because Windows 7 Home Premium will struggle to run on a netbook. We've already seen that it's actually quite happy with a 1.6GHz Atom processor and 1GB of memory, and that's testament to the abilities of Steve Sinofsky's team of developers: in terms of running on old-spec machines (relative to the date of release that is, I'm not claiming that Windows 3.1 was more memory-intensive!), Windows 7 is the leanest OS we've ever seen from the company.

Windows 7 Enterprise/Ultimate

I've never seen the point of Vista Enterprise, despite the best efforts of Microsoft employees to persuade me otherwise. The idea is essentially to "reward" loyal (and large) corporations who buy Windows through Software Assurance, but to me it seems more like a punishment to every small business out there.

And, just as with Vista, Windows 7 will reward big business with some excellent, security-based features that in my view are essential for all sizes of business.

They'll get BitLocker (essentially hardware-encyrpted hard drives), DirectAccess (which should make it incredibly easy for remote employees to access their company network, even if hidden behind a corporate firewall) and AppLocker (which allows IT admins to strictly control which apps can run on company hardware).

Of all those, it's BitLocker that's of most interest - just count the number of business laptops released with a TPM chip inside - but the only way a small business can get that feature is to buy the laptop and then use the "in-place upgrade" to Ultimate.

Why oh why can't Professional include these sorts of security features, which are growing ever more essential? Oh yes, money.

Deep breaths

In short, I feel that Microsoft's marketers and accountants have been short-sighted and let down the engineers who have made Windows 7 a fantastic product.

Six different SKUs might make sense to MS board members, but in the cold light of day it won't make sense to the general public. And now all the Microsoft haters out there have yet one more reason to give the company a good kicking.