Taking stock of the Windows 8 versions

Woody Leonhard

Microsoft just released details on the versions of Windows 8 it’ll offer when the OS ships — most likely sometime in October.

Although the company will simplify the current huge array of Windows versions with Win8, the choices are really not any simpler at all.

Microsoft used to have a simple, small set of SKUs (stock-keeping units — what you and I would call versions) for Windows. For example, XP first shipped with just two: Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Professional. XP Professional added the ability to join a domain and to act as a server (a host or, as I like to say, a “puppet”) in a Remote Desktop session: it included Encrypting File System (EFS), Group Policy Editor, and a handful of lesser features.

Then the proverbial hit the fan. Within two years we had Windows XP Starter Edition, Media Center Edition, and Tablet PC Edition — all of which were available only as preinstalled software on new systems (in theory). XP Professional was also released in 64-bit versions (which worked on alternate Tuesdays) for Itanium (Wikipedia info page) and Itanium 2 processors. (The original XP Pro 64 was released simultaneously with XP Pro, but I don’t think it worked until years later.) Then there was the XP Professional x64 Edition.

That murky situation wasn’t made any clearer with Vista — and Windows 7 followed in Vista’s footsteps.

Given that history, there was hope that Microsoft would finally reduce the version complexity and give us — well, uh — just Windows 8. But in an April 16 post, Microsoft’s irrepressible Brandon LeBlanc announced the range of Windows 8 versions/SKUs the company plans to offer.

An introduction to the various new SKUs

I think the easiest way to understand Win8’s new SKUs is to compare them with Windows 7. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Windows 7 Starter won’t make the transition to Windows 8. No big loss. This stunted version of Win7 is available only preinstalled on new PCs.
  • Windows 7 Home Basic is targeted at “emerging markets” and comes in a wide variety of languages. It’ll be replaced by an as-yet-unnamed Win8 version, and it also will be targeted at emerging markets (Brandon LeBlanc mentions China). The difference? Windows 8 for Emerging Markets, or whatever it’s eventually called, will come in local language–only versions.

    Microsoft hopes this strategy will reduce piracy. I figure it’ll slow down the typical overseas pirate by about, oh, two seconds — but that’s another discussion for another time. There’s no indication from Brandon how the Win8 Emerging Markets version will differ from other SKUs, other than language. We also don’t know which countries will get this version.

  • Windows 7 Home Premium will become Windows 8. Yes, just “Windows 8” — refreshing, eh?
  • Windows 7 Professional becomes Windows 8 Pro (just “Pro,” not “Professional”). Like all the other Pro versions of Windows starting with XP, Win8 Pro can join a domain and act as a server in a Remote Desktop session. And like its predecessors, it includes EFS, Group Policy Editor, and some additional features. Win8 Pro also includes BitLocker drive encryption and Hyper-V Server, and it can boot from a virtual hard drive. There’s no word on a bundled XP Mode.
  • Windows 7 Enterprise turns into something Brandon calls “Windows 8 for enterprise customers with Software Assurance agreements.” According to Brandon, it has everything planned for Win8 Pro plus “features for IT organizations that enable PC management and deployment, advanced security, virtualization, new mobility scenarios, and much more.” Microsoft has more details about Windows 8 Enterprise on a Windows Team blog.
  • Windows 7 Ultimate is going away. That could cause a lot of headaches for some small businesses and even for a few enthusiasts. Why? To get the equivalent to Windows 7 Ultimate’s feature set, they’ll have to sign up for an expensive Software Assurance license.

There are two new versions of Windows 8:

  • Windows 8 for ARM machines — commonly called WOA — will be called, inexplicably, Windows RT. It’s an odd choice because WinRT is the programming technology that drives the Metro interface in Windows 8 for desktops and WOA. In fact, Microsoft couldn’t have chosen a worse name. Why? Because when customers go to the store, Windows 8 tablets (based on WinRT technology) will run traditional Windows programs, but the Windows RT tablets (also based on WinRT) won’t. It could be painfully confusing.
  • Windows Media Center will be an “economical” add-on for Windows 8 Pro. I’ve no idea why Microsoft requires you to buy Windows 8 Pro to get the Media Center or how much Media Center will cost, but that’s the way the marketing cookie crumbles.

Some remaining Windows 8 mysteries

I, for one, can’t believe that Microsoft will stick with the “Windows RT” name for Windows on ARM. As reported in a 2007 Seattle PI story, Microsoft was sued for its “Windows Vista Capable” logos, placed on new systems that could not run the full version of Vista.

What’s going to happen when consumers buy a Windows RT tablet and discover that it doesn’t in fact run old-fashioned, everyday Windows programs — just Metro apps?

That’s not the only question about Windows RT. Brandon states that Windows RT “will include touch-optimized desktop versions of the new Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.” Nobody’s seen any of those touch-optimized desktop versions — at least, nobody who’s talking — but we do know for a fact that they won’t be running on the Windows 8 Legacy Desktop. It doesn’t exist in Windows RT.

Brandon also didn’t talk about, or even hint at, pricing.

Undoubtedly many, many more questions about Windows 8 will arise before it ships. Let’s hope we get the right answers — from the users’ perspective.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2012-04-26:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.