Windows 8 Versions: The News Is Mostly Good

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For years, it’s been fashionable to complain that Windows comes in too many versions, resulting in unneccesary complexity and confusion. Here’s a 2003 Cnet story by Joe Wilcox which reports on controversy over Windows XP’s expanding lineup of variants; here’s a 2009 Ars Technica one by Peter Bright saying that Windows 7, with six versions, is too convoluted.

Now Microsoft has announced the version lineup for Windows 8 — which it’s finally saying will definitely be called Windows 8 — and it’s both simplified and complicated matters. Executive summary: there will be four versions of Windows 8, but you’re never going to be faced with the prospect of standing at Best Buy staring at four shrinkwrapped boxes and trying to figure out which one to buy.

(MORE: if you need a Windows 8 refresher, check out my review of the Consumer Preview. And my colleague Jared Newman is enthusiastic about some new Windows 8 apps.)

Here’s what Microsoft announced:

Windows 8 — no modifier — seems to be a rough equivalent to Windows 7 Home Premium. It’s a version with most of the stuff most people might want.

Windows 8 Pro has everything in Windows 8 and more. It’s…

…designed to help tech enthusiasts and business/technical professionals obtain a broader set of Windows 8 technologies. It includes all the features in Windows 8 plus features for encryption, virtualization, PC management and domain connectivity. Windows Media Center will be available as an economical “media pack” add-on to Windows 8 Pro. If you are an enthusiast or you want to use your PC in a business environment, you will want Windows 8 Pro.

Windows 8 Enterprise will only be available to enterprise customers — companies which maintain software licensing agreements with Microsoft. It includes everything in Windows 8 Pro, plus “features for IT organization that enable PC management and deployment, advanced security, virtualization, new mobility scenarios, and much more.”

And then there’s Windows RT, which is so much of an outlier that it isn’t even called “Windows 8.” It’ll come preinstalled on tablets and other devices that use ARM processors. It will sport the new Metro interface and will come with a bundled version of Microsoft Office. But it won’t be able to run old-school Windows apps, and will be missing many of the features aimed at IT folks and other denizens of the corporate world.

What’s missing? Microsoft seems to have sheared the low-end and high-end offerings off the lineup. Its blog post on the new versions makes no mention of a Windows 8 Starter Edition or Home Basic Edition, and the company has eliminated the notion of an Ultimate version aimed at tech enthusiasts that includes absolutely everything. For consumers, it’s moved to a model of good and better, rather than rudimentary, basic, good, even better, and best.

I’m sure that some will insist that Microsoft should simply sell the best version, as Apple does with OS X — but I’m not that curmudgeonly.

Things get a little complicated with Windows RT, although it’s not so much an issue of deciding which version of Windows to buy — RT won’t come shrink-wrapped — as understanding that there are such things as Windows computing devices that won’t let you run the bulk of existing Windows software, and that those devices use an operating system called Windows RT. If you’re bothering to read this article, this stuff probably won’t confuse you, but I’ll be curious to see whether random everyday people who aren’t paying attention will understand the distinction.

(Why the name “Windows RT?” It apparently stands for “Run Time,” and is an odd throwback to the era of Windows 2.0 back in the 1980s, when most PC users didn’t have Windows and some Windows programs therefore came with a stripped-down “runtime” version of the operating system. But I’m not clear on why Microsoft decided that it shouldn’t have an 8 in its name, and as a Twitter user, I can’t think of “RT” without thinking of retweeting.)

Anyhow, people somtimes pine for the Windows XP era and talk about XP coming in just two well-defined editions: Home and Professional.  (Here’s Joe Wilcox recently doing that — even though he wrote that 2003 article about the excessive number of XP versions.) They seem to be forgetting that XP is where the concept of endless specialized versions of Windows began. You had your Tablet PC Edition, your Media Center Edition, your Starter Edition, forgotten variants such as Windows XP for Subscription Computers…

Since then, Microsoft has been gradually streamlining the lineup. Let’s recap:

Windows Vista: four retail editions (Home Basic, Home Premium, Business and Ultimate) plus two most people didn’t encounter (Starter and Enterprise).

Windows 7: three retail editions (Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate) plus one you might encounter preinstalled on low-end computers (Starter) and two most people won’t encounter (Home Basic and Enterprise).

Windows 8: two retail versions for x86 PCs (Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro) plus one you’ll encounter only preinstalled on devices that use ARM processors  (Windows RT) plus one most people won’t encounter (Windows 8 Enterprise).

Microsoft, a company that sometimes instinctively complicates things that don’t need to be complicated, has been moving in the right direction now for years, as if it knows it has a problem but can’t quit the too-many-versions thing cold turkey. I don’t see it ever giving up on the notion of an Enterprise edition with additional corporate miscellany that consumers don’t care about or need. And unless it either brings desktop apps to ARM or kills off support for them in a future x86 release of Windows — two far-fetched scenarios — the ARM and x86 editions of the operating system will never be identical.

But for an x86 PC, your choice will be relatively straightforward: Windows 8, or Windows 8 Pro? And it doesn’t seem completely unthinkable that Windows 9, whenever it shows up, might eliminate even that segmentation.