Windows Me may not have had much going for it, but it has one claim to fame: It was the last major release of Windows to come in a single edition, or SKU.
In the ensuing decade, every major release of desktop Windows has come in a wide — too wide, say many — variety of flavors.
By one count, Windows XP and Vista came in eight separate editions, if you include two Windows Media Player-free versions mandated by the European Union for anti-monopoly reasons.
Even Windows 2000, often romanticized for its small footprint, came in four versions.
This increase in Windows edition has bewildered many consumers, and led even ardent Windows fans to make dark jokes.
“I wonder whether Windows 7 will have 700 SKUs or if [Microsoft] will streamline that,” Andrew Brust, a technology consultant and Microsoft MVP, has said on his Twitter page.
Paul Thurrott, a well-known Windows blogger, said, “It is laughable. It's such a brazen play on their part to juice people for as much money as they can get.”
This MBA textbook-style attempt to maximize revenue by divvying up features by customer segment is actually hurting Microsoft, said Rob Enderle, an independent analyst.
He said Microsoft's decision to strip Active Directory features from consumer versions of Vista meant that workers running Macs at home or on personal laptops have an easier time hooking up to their corporate network than many Vista users.
That is helping Apple gain the foothold in the enterprise it has long been denied, Enderle said.
“In effect, this screwy SKU thing has given Apple an advantage in enterprises that Microsoft has taken away from itself and probably will be one of the primary things slowing Windows 7 adoption” should it come in multiple editions, he said.
Recent beta releases of Windows 7 list five versions during the installation process:
Starter Edition, a stripped-down version for customers in developing countries running underpowered hardware that has been around since XP.
Home Basic, the controversial low-end consumer flavor introduced with Vista that Microsoft apparently debated whether or not to release
Home Premium, also introduced with Vista; Ultimate, introduced with Vista, the loaded-with-goodies version aimed at hard-core hobbyists
Business, introduced with Vista as the replacement to Professional for corporate use.
A Microsoft spokeswoman confirmed the five version names in the Windows 7 beta, but said they were only “preliminary.”
“We will continue to take customer feedback from the beta test period into account as we refine the SKU set for Windows 7 and will share more information when we are further along the development path,” the spokeswoman said in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, CNET UK reported that Microsoft plans to make a single version of Windows 7 just for netbooks.
There is evidence, via a Microsoft job posting, that Microsoft plans to release a Small Business version of Windows 7, as it once planned but abandoned for Vista, as well as an Enterprise edition, which already exists with Vista. There would also be two additional 'N' versions of Windows 7 for customers in the EU, which has signalled recently it may even demand Microsoft bundle rival browsers with Windows. In all, Windows 7 could therefore have as many as 10 editions.
Thurrott disagrees, arguing that Microsoft will cut down on the proliferation in editions that peaked with XP and Vista. He notes that the public Windows 7 beta includes the locale-specific themes that, in XP and Vista, were only available in the Starter edition, which hints that the latter could be eliminated.
The public beta, which is of Windows 7 Ultimate, appears able to run on low-end hardware like netbooks, obviating the need to create a separate SKU for it, Thurrott said.
He said that he has also heard reports that Microsoft plans to cut the “useless” Home Basic, that the Business edition will eventually be renamed Professional and include Media Center features, and that an Enterprise edition would be eliminated and its features, such as desktop virtualization, offered as add-ons to interested corporate customers.
Thurrott believes Microsoft's best strategy is to release Windows 7 in just three versions (not including the EU-mandated ones): Home, Professional and Ultimate.
“Gosh, I really do hope so. If there were just three versions, no one would make fun of it,” he said. “Five or seven versions, that's just crazy town.”
Thurrott also thinks Microsoft should cut the price on all of its versions, as well as let customers install Windows on multiple PCs or virtual machines, as Apple does with Mac OS X.
He said he was hopeful for a reduction in editions because Steven Sinofsky, the Microsoft VP in charge of Windows 7's development, is “a simplicity maven.”
Enderle, who hammered Microsoft's version strategy with Vista, especially its decision to release Vista Home Basic, has a more quixotic hope.
“I think there should be one version of Windows which allows the OEMs [PC makers] more flexibility with regard to creating unique user experiences without breaking compatibility, and restores the ability of users to drive OS upgrades in the companies where they work,” Enderle said in an e-mail.
“I'm not aware of another instance where a user-focused technology is specifically altered so a user can't bring it into their workplace,” he said.