Microsoft has made Windows 7's packaging official. There will be six editions of Windows 7, which could potentially lead to the same customer confusion that erupted on the release of Windows Vista two years ago.
The software giant also confirmed this week that it will offer upgrade packages for Windows XP holdouts.
Many users clearly remember the dizzying array of Vista editions that Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) came out with when it shipped Vista on January 30, 2007.
One of those – Home Basic – even engendered a class action lawsuit against Microsoft. That case is scheduled for trial in mid-April.
There are also six editions or SKUs – short for "stock keeping unit," a retail term – of Windows 7, just as there were for Vista. However, their features are more standardized between editions, Microsoft and analysts point out.
Sorting through the corresponding feature sets of each edition should be more straightforward than was the case for Vista. That's because, as the customer moves from the bottom to the top of the list, all of the features of the next lowest edition are included.
So, for instance, Windows 7 Enterprise edition will be a "superset" of Windows 7 Professional.
"As customers upgrade from one version to the next, they keep all features and functionality from the previous edition," Mike Ybarra, general manager for Windows said in a statement.
That's a good idea, analysts say.
"Assuming that they [Microsoft] stay on the same trajectory, they have a much more manageable SKU sequence than they had before with Vista," Stephen Baker, vice president for industry analysis at NPD,
Here's the lineup
The lineup begins, on the low end, with Windows 7 Starter edition. That edition will only be available via PC makers, though, and only on "new PCs limited to specific types of hardware," Ybarra said. Translation: Starter edition may be relegated only to inexpensive netbooks.
Next up, Windows 7 Home Premium will be the main offering for consumers, while Windows 7 Professional, the equivalent to Vista Business, is targeted towards small businesses. In fact, Ybarra said that Microsoft expects most consumers will gravitate to one or the other of these two packages.
There will also, as with Vista, be an Enterprise edition of Windows 7 with added features for enterprise administrators and other corporate tasks. Enterprise edition, however, will only be available to "annuity customers with Software Assurance agreements," according to Ybarra.
Finally, the company will have Windows 7 Ultimate edition for hardcore PC users who "want it all," such as, for instance, BitLocker drive encryption that is otherwise only available in the Enterprise edition.
XP Not Left Out
Microsoft will also offer upgrade packages for Windows XP users.
"Customers can purchase upgrade media and an upgrade license to move from Windows XP to Windows 7; however, they will need to do a clean installation of Windows 7," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement e-mailed to
Microsoft touts that there are more than a billion Windows PCs running in the world today. The majority of those run Windows XP, so it's just logical that Microsoft would offer upgrade packaging for those users.
"To create a seamless upgrade path for XP users is a great thing to do, and that would help to get users back on the regular upgrade path" Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, Of course, it would also help refill Microsoft's coffers.
Additionally, Microsoft said that, during the current beta, testers have been able to run all editions of Windows 7 on so-called netbooks, a market that surprised almost the entire tech marketplace when they surfaced a year ago and suddenly exploded in sales.
"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," Brad Brooks, corporate vice president for Windows consumer product marketing, said in a statement.
Further simplifying the offerings, Microsoft will not be distributing one of the six editions – Windows 7 Home Basic – in the U.S. or other developed countries.
That is not because Home Basic was the edition that caused Microsoft's Vista Capable lawsuit, but rather Microsoft pragmatically responding to customers' needs on a worldwide basis, NPD's Baker said.
"There are clearly different needs between customers and geographies. For Home Basic, while a lot of mainstream users may not need it, it's more targeted for emerging markets," Baker added.
Microsoft did not disclose pricing or give an updated schedule of when Windows 7 will be generally available.
However, many observers expect Windows 7 to reach the Release Candidate (RC) stage by April, and actual release sometime in late spring or early summer.