Why would Windows 7 customers spend $120 more for BitLocker?

The fact that Microsoft will continue to offer consumers multiple versions of Windows when the company's new Windows 7 premieres on October 22, continues to stick in the craw of many who doubt there's any real demand for a less-than-complete edition of the operating system. Retailers continue to require a three-tier marketing approach, although Microsoft's choice of the name "Home Premium" this time around to refer to the lesser of its good/better/best tiers, continues to raise eyebrows.

But the questions about what's so Ultimate about "Ultimate" have only resounded more loudly, especially after CNET's Ina Fried brought the issue to a head early this morning. Since the only two differences that Microsoft's Web page mentioned between the Professional and Ultimate editions are the inclusion of BitLocker drive encryption and the multiple language pack (typically included with Windows' business licenses), prospective customers are asking what it is that makes Ultimate really worth $120 more than Professional.

One of the questions from a customer on Microsoft's own Web site reads, "So first we Vista Ultimate users pay a huge price for a Vista version that is not in any way worth the money and now we have to pay a even more for an upgrade? WTF? At least make the Ultimate upgrade cost as much as the Professional upgrade. Otherwise it's like double tax!"

Betanews asked Microsoft this afternoon, what are the extra features of Windows 7 Ultimate that will justify the extra investment on the part of everyday consumers? "For customers who 'want it all' and customers who want enhanced security features such as BitLocker that are in Windows 7 Enterprise Edition, we offer the Ultimate SKU," a company spokesperson responded to us today.
"An important thing to keep in mind with Ultimate is that it is a very niche SKU," the spokesperson remarked to Betanews, "and Microsoft anticipates most consumers will run Home Premium -- which is why this is the SKU that is the most discounted compared with Windows Vista pricing...That said, when you have a customer base of more than one billion, two SKU options can't satisfy all of their varied needs."

The standard upgrade price for the Windows 7 Professional SKU is $199.99, but under the terms of a pre-order discount program expected to expire on Sunday, July 11, Microsoft is knocking $100 off that upgrade price, for a total $200 discount from Professional's full retail MSRP of $299.99. No similar discounts are being offered for Win7 Ultimate, and its upgrade price is essentially unchanged (except for ending in .99 rather than .95) from the Vista Ultimate upgrade price.

There actually are several features in Ultimate that are brought over from the Windows 7 Enterprise SKU, that are not to be found in Professional. Their usefulness in a typical consumer-oriented home setting, however, may be extremely limited. For example, AppLocker is designed to provide administrators with a group policy tool for specifying explicit rules for which applications can be run in the OS environment and which cannot. BranchCache enables users of corporate intranets to retrieve files and other data from locally stored caches that are nearer to the client, in networks managed by Windows Server 2008 R2. And DirectAccess is a phenomenal new feature that enables a Windows client to access a company network directly (again using WS2K8 R2), by way of a secure IPsec connection, without having to rely on anyone's VPN scheme, without any tunneling, and without having to sacrifice the client's own local network or homegroup connection.

These are all wonderful features indeed, but try explaining them to the fellow who's considering Ultimate as a platform for World of Warcraft. He may actually never use them -- he may "want it all," but he'll probably discover he doesn't need it all.

Does that mean this customer would fall outside the "niche" of Ultimate buyers to whom our Microsoft spokesperson referred this afternoon? The company's response to us today would appear to say, yes.

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