Explanation for Windows 7 'clear choices' for SKUs murkier than ever

There will be a client version of Windows 7 geared for everyday consumers, and another client version for businesses other than those that would normally purchase volume licenses. The reasons why are growing fewer in number.

The official explanation for Microsoft's choice of product SKUs for Windows 7 later this year -- which follows an almost identical pattern to the current breakdown for Windows Vista -- could be more befuddling than the existing explanation for Vista. Yesterday's prepared Q&A with Windows General Manager Mike Ybarra states in great detail that his company's choices give consumers a broad array of choices, while at the same time acknowledging that there's only one choice they should make anyway.

"We have designed Windows 7 so different editions of Windows 7 can run on a very broad set of hardware, from small-notebook PCs (sometimes referred to as netbooks) to full gaming desktops," stated Ybarra yesterday. "This way, customers can enable the scenarios they want across the broad hardware choices they have."

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But what scenarios would that be? Just two paragraphs later, we learn that there's really only one: "Windows 7 Home Premium is the recommended choice for consumers. It gives them a full-function PC experience and a visually rich environment in everything from the way they experience entertainment to the way they connect their devices."

What if a consumer has one of those small-notebook PCs (sometimes referred to as netbooks) to which Ybarra referred? Last October at PDC, Microsoft gave us reason to believe that Microsoft could be planning a special SKU for netbooks. The danger with creating such as SKU, however, would be the inevitable interpretation by consumers that Win7 was "bloated," and needed to be scaled down to fit -- a feat that hasn't been possible for many netbook manufacturers who continue to use Windows XP instead.

No such SKU was announced yesterday, which was no surprise to testers of recent Win7 beta builds who noticed no such choice was listed by their setup programs.

In a separate prepared Q&A yesterday, marketing corporate VP Brad Brooks stated his company thought long and hard about its netbook options, deciding to give customers "a clear path for Windows 7 across the board, so as we demonstrated at PDC, WinHEC and CES, Windows 7 provides a great user experience on small-notebook PCs."

And what choice would that be, specifically? Just two paragraphs down, Brooks' answer is, well, just about anything you want it to be.

"These engineering investments allow small notebook PCs to run any version of Windows 7, and allow customers complete flexibility to purchase a system which meets their needs. For OEMs that build lower-cost small notebook PCs, Windows 7 Starter will now be available in developed markets. For the most enhanced, full-functioning Windows experience on small notebook PCs, however, consumers will want to go with Windows 7 Home Premium, which lets you get the most out of your digital media and easily connect with other PCs."

And just how should consumers make that clear choice? Brooks recommends that consumers spend a lot of time thinking about it first: "I tell people to spend some time thinking carefully about what types of activities they want to do with their computer. There are many full-size notebook options out there that are also very affordable and portable. Ask yourself what you want your computer to do, balancing those needs with how mobile you want it to be. There isn't a one-size-fits-all option."

Where exactly, then, is the clarity in the "clear choice?" As has been the case with Vista, most of the functionality of the Home Premium edition will match that of the Professional edition (comparable to the Vista Business SKU), which Microsoft now says is tailored to the home office. And there will actually be one less distinction between the two, Ybarra admitted, saying that Win7 Professional will include a standard Windows Media Player that had been excluded from Vista Business.

This leaves one, and perhaps only one, critical distinction, having to do with security -- or perhaps more to the point, securability. For Vista SP1, the decision was made to exclude group policy management from the consumer-directed SKUs such as Vista Home Premium, on the theory that the consumer's PC wouldn't need it, as it would likely not be part of an administered Active Directory-based scenario.

The problem is, that's less and less the truth, especially with more home offices being connected to VPNs. Prior to Vista's release, Microsoft engineers had been working on an Advanced version of its Windows Firewall that did use the group policy mechanism in a personalized environment. It was complex, and probably pretty hard to learn, but at least it was straightforward and it appeared to work well enough. But that project was pretty much canned when GPOs were removed from SP1 -- in fact, the setup actively removes the mechanism. That doesn't mean it can't theoretically be reinstalled, but recently, Microsoft has taken great pains to eliminate any trace of the former GPO plug-in from general availability.

What's more, the company has been working on finding ways to perhaps open consumer-based installations to more automated management options, maybe even purchased through Microsoft. The GPO mechanism would be beneficial there too, but only in the absence of an artificial restriction against the use of this potentially powerful security tool, for the sake of maintaining distinctions between product SKUs.

That's not to say customers won't be able to get such features, they'll just have to pay extra for them. As Ybarra explained yesterday, "Windows 7 Ultimate edition is designed for PC enthusiasts who 'want it all,' and customers who want the security features such as BitLocker found in Windows 7 Enterprise edition."

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