Are there really too many Windows editions?

Are there really too many Windows editions?

Summary: Ask any Windows pundit about all the different versions of Windows Vista that Microsoft offers and you’ll invariably get the same response. There are too many! Consumers are confused! It all needs to be simplified! To which I say: Be careful what you wish for. The case for reducing the number of Windows versions to one or two sounds convincing in the abstract, but the argument breaks down quickly once you start to examine the details and consider how such a change would affect the way you and I buy Windows on consumer and business PCs. For starters, would you be willing to pay 17.5% more for an entry-level PC? That's just one of the problems with this idea.


Ask any Windows pundit about all the different editions of Windows Vista that Microsoft offers and you’ll invariably get the same response. There are too many! Consumers are confused! It all needs to be simplified!

To which I say: Be careful what you wish for. The case for reducing the number of Windows editions to one or two sounds convincing in the abstract, but the argument breaks down quickly once you start to examine the details and consider how such a change would affect the way you and I buy Windows on consumer and business PCs. In fact, if Microsoft were to try, it would have a devastating effect on the low end of the market.

The latest to jump on the too-many-versions bandwagon is my friend and ZDNet colleague Adrian Kingsley-Hughes. After tweaking me for “sweating the small stuff,” in my conjecture about what Windows 7 will ultimately be called, he writes that he’s “far more interested in how many different flavors of the OS we can expect to have to deal with.“ And like so many others who write on this topic, he proposes a simple solution:

Now, ideally I’d like to see Microsoft return to a situation where there’s one consumer and one professional flavor of Windows. In fact, why not take it a step further and adopt the Mac approach and go with a single version.

That’s a bad idea, in my opinion. The next time you hear someone make this suggestion, here are two questions to ask:

How much are you going to charge for this all-in-one Windows version?

Currently, Microsoft has a tiered pricing system for Windows. For OEM copies sold with a new PC (and remember, that's how 9 out of 10 copies are sold), that price is buried in the cost of the system and isn’t broken out. But for the sake of argument, here are my best estimates of how much each Windows Vista edition adds to the cost of a new PC:

  • Home Basic $20
  • Home Premium $60
  • Business $130
  • Ultimate $190

Microsoft brings in a steady stream of revenue from this current mix, revenue that is the biggest part of its bottom line. If you were to replace those four editions with a single edition for a single price, my back-of-the-envelope calculation says the new price would have to be in the neighborhood of $90. That would add $70 to the cost of entry-level PCs, many of which are currently being sold to budget -conscious businesses with Vista Home Basic. For a $400 bare-bones PC, that’s a 17.5% price increase. Yikes!

The good news is that this pricing scheme would mean a price reduction for those currently choosing Vista Business and XP Pro. In other words, big business would pay less. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who calls for a single edition of Windows is advocating reverse socialism, a transfer of costs to consumers and small businesses from large corporations. I vote no on that proposal.

How will you split up business and consumer features?

OK, so instead of a single version, let’s have two. As Adrian points out, that was the way Windows XP was originally sold. XP Home was a true subset of XP Professional, lacking the ability to host a Remote Desktop session, join a Windows domain, and edit group policy settings, for example.

Since then, the SKUs have become more complicated. If you ditched the Home Basic and Ultimate editions and offered Home Premium and Business, you’d probably satisfy most people. Except you’d really create a frustrating situation for those people who want both sets of features.

Businesses don’t want their OS cluttered up with frills like Media Center. Consumers don’t need the capability to join a domain. The idea behind Vista Ultimate is that it combines the Consumer and Business feature set (so you can attach five extenders to your Media Center and also use it as a Remote Desktop host and connect to a domain and even encrypt the system volume with BitLocker). Currently, that’s probably 5% of the market or less, but it’s the most demanding and sophisticated segment of all.

I don’t think Microsoft has done a very good job of drawing the lines between different editions. For example, the Complete PC Backup feature should be standard in every single copy of Windows and not restricted to Business and Ultimate. They’ve done a terrible job of educating consumers on the differences between editions. And they’ve made it needlessly expensive and complicated to upgrade, as well.

Still, despite all the howling from pundits, I hear few complaints from real people that they’re confused over which Windows edition to buy. Consumers and OEMs seem to have done a pretty good job of figuring out which versions are right for which segments of the market. Sometimes, simpler isn’t better.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software

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  • Are there really too many Windows editions?

    Loverock Davidson
    • Yeah!

      Amen to that!

      Power to the people!
      Loverock is the people!

      • Never too many distros

        Power to the people!

      • Too many... yes, really too!

        All the people I asked the same, answered
        something like:

        "The best thing should be reducing to one sole
        version, the closed Windows one!"
    • Of course there are!

      Any OS named Vista is another OS too many!
      linux for me
    • Too many Windows editions?

      Yes just make 2 version, Business and Home version. Vista already has a way to turn Windows features off or on. Just pay $125 and get it all then turn off or on what features you want. But PLEASE dear Gwad make them remove the UAC. Hate that thing.
  • There are really only two versions no matter how many labels.

    There's the fully functional version that's called Ultimate. This has all the functionality MS could come up with.

    Then there's the version with functionality removed. This one has many labels, with the different labels providing some indication as to what functionality was removed.
    • Right, it is just a lot of noise in order for MS to extract as much money

      as the can. The general economic term is "absorbing the consumer surplus".
    • Agreed

      The pricing points are artificial. It just lets Microsoft come up with an entry point, then puff up the price with "extra features". In reality, they could probably push out Ultimate for somewhere between HP and Business...

      I found it frustrating. I wanted the Media Centre on Vista, but all my media sits on my Domain Controller... Business can find the media, but can't play it (and still doesn't play DVDs), Home Basic couldn't see, and wouldn't know what to do with it anyway, Home Premium could play it, but can't see it... That leaves me with Ultimate as the only "entry level" option...

      Even corporates need the odd media capable PC, for presentations, watching TV or streamed events etc.

      With one version, with the options of "normal home", "normal business", "the whole she-bang" and "custom" when installing, it would suit everybody. If I have a home laptop and suddenly find I need to connect it to my employer's domain (something which happened last week), or the machine in the meeting room is suddenly needed to watch the football world cup (happened over the summer), just pop the DVD back in and enable the relevant features.

      With XP, I could only ever buy the machines I wanted with XP Home, but I always needed XP Pro, so I always ended up with more Windows licences than I could shake a stick at...

      Give me one version, then I'm not held hostage by the whims of Microsoft or hardware manufacturers...
    • Yes there are too many versions!

      Many home users need to connect to Windows domains. Many business users need media functions. Owner needs change frequently during the lifespan of a PC. Numerous arbitrarily crippled versions make life more difficult for support people and more confusing for users, creating additional support costs for both companies and home users.

      The "I don't want to pay for features I don't use" excuse doesn't hold water because maintaining a wide variety of SKUs drives up the price of all of them. If Microsoft sold one version, it would reduce their costs, allowing them to make the single complete version less expensive per seat.

      Think about it. Pressing smaller quantities of 8 different DVD versions costs more than pressing a larger quantity of one version. Printing a small quantity of each of 8 different versions of a box costs more, too. Same for manuals. Maintaining software patches for 8 different versions costs more than maintaining patches for one. Plus, there is the expense of educating the public about which version is "appropriate" for them.

      Apple has the right idea. Microsoft is ripping us off by crippling the OS and telling us it somehow costs us less or benefits us in any way. There should be one version with the cost savings passed on to the consumer - One version at a reasonable price. Period.
  • Still, from a consumer point of view, he wants one version, 20 bucks,

    enable any features you want. The multiple versions are ONLY for Microsoft's benefit in order to extract more money from YOU the eager customer.
    • Not sure what you're saying

      Do you mean they can enable any feature they want for 20 bucks, or they want to buy the whole thing for 20 bucks and can enable any feature for free?

      If it's the former, then you'd have to define what a feature is, because I'm not spending $20 on IE, then another $20 for the media center, then another to be able to connect to a Windows domain, then another to be able to span hard drives, then another to burn DVDs, then another for a backup utility... eventually you're paying double what you're paying now.

      And if it's the later, then $20 just isn't realistic. Maybe $150 OEM and $200 retail, but not much less than that.
      Michael Kelly
      • Talking $20 for the whole works. That is where it is heading.

        But, MS WILL be using every creative trick in the book to give the budget customers a complete OS, at the same time trying to get an extra $100 out of people for something not that much more.
    • You didn't read Ed's article??

      It's fun to dream, isn't it?

      Besides, at this point most will buy new PCs with Vista already installed, making this issue almost moot.

      Anyone who was thinking of going to Vista to replace an older OS on an older PC has done it already. Hold-outs are probably scared to do so now because of so much bad press.

      Like me, I'm sure many of those who upgraded found out that they had to replace their CD-ROM drives, as many of the pre-Vista models would fail or cause long startup delays, as in my old Dell Dimension 8300, for example. And firmware upgrades to my Plextor burner only left it with very spotty performance with DVDs and no CD burning capability at all. Replaced the CD-ROM drives with Vista ready ones and the old Dell starts up as fast as my AMD Athlon X2 4800+ that runs Vista Ultimate.

      But I digress. My point is that most will simply get Vista on a new computer with Vista compatible hardware.
  • RE: Are there really too many Windows editions?

    I say they just release 28 versions then if nobody can figure out how to make this easy.

    We can have a gaming version, and then we can have an Internet version, and an Office version, how about a Smurf edition for when people justwant to see Smurfs dance across their screen?

    Seriously though. Why not just two versions? One for home use and one for business use and have those versions have optional components for lower-end computers?

    If the OS is so dang complicated that 5+ versions are needed, then I say the OS ROI requirements need to be re-thought out.
    • From an end user point of view, why not just one, enable the features you

      want. One low price, $20. Who says that sophisticated consumers do not want some of the features in the "pro" version?
      • Go to a Microsoft shareholder meeting and suggest that

        Seriously, from a consumer point of view, why not just give it away? Microsoft built a company based on a certain revenue stream. I already did the math for you. You want Microsoft to slash its main source of revenue by more than 75%? Please.
        Ed Bott
        • And, consumers do not give a sheeet about MS shareholders, they just want

          the product for a low price. You expect consumers to be eager to shell out extra money to keep MS shareholders happy?????
          • Markets

            Markets have buyers and sellers. If you want to live in Fantasyland, you can ignore one or the other. I'd like to pay 25 cents for a gallon of gas and get a 62-inch plasma for $99. Let me know when yo find those deals, OK?

            Back here in the real world, you want to find a price and a product that offer fair value for both buyer and seller. When you do, you get a successful market.
            Ed Bott
          • Yes, in this case the term "absorbing the consumer surplus" is what you are

            searching for. If we had to, we would pay $10 for a gallon of water, after all, we die without water. So, here we are, companies selling water dirt cheap because of something magic called competition. So, people use tricks to coax more money out of the consumer. Chevy puts a lot of chrome on the car, and calls it a Cadalac, and says it is for rich people, and charges more money. Obviously, MS is doing the same with the Windows versions - Vista ultimate has a lot of chrome.

            But, the problem again for MS is this nasty thing called competition and they are running out of dirty tricks. Eventually, they will have to lower the price.