What was Microsoft thinking?

What was Microsoft thinking?

Summary: With the introduction of so many editions of Windows Vista, Microsoft has introduced a level of customer confusion (and frustration) that is unprecedented. Don't they get it?

TOPICS: Microsoft, Windows

Last January, Microsoft released its latest and (some would say) greatest desktop operating system so far -- Windows Vista.  After almost six years with Windows XP, people were ready for a change but, thanks to the people in Redmond, making that transition has been anything but simple and straightforward.  Why is that?  Because Windows Vista comes in six "flavors":

  • Vista Starter Edition
  • Vista Home Basic
  • Vista Home Premium
  • Vista Business
  • Vista Enterprise
  • Vista Ultimate

When Microsoft introduced Windows XP in 2001, they kept things simple.  Prior to that, there was a consumer line of Windows products and there was a professional line.  While Windows XP marked the first unified code base for Windows, Microsoft made the transition smooth for most users by offering two choices. 

You bought Windows XP Home or you bought Windows XP Professional.  Aside from some network-centric features (Active Directory and Remote Desktop, for instance), there was no visible difference between the two products. 

As Windows XP matured, two other versions appeared on the scene:

  • Windows XP Media Center Edition
  • Windows XP Tablet PC Edition

Generally speaking, these two editions we offered for sale only with special OEM configurations which could take advantage of their respective extensions.  Yes, Microsoft also introduced Windows XP Starter Edition (for emerging markets) and an EU-crippled edition (which apparently nobody in Europe really wanted anyway) but these products were not available in the United States and were not widely promoted. 

So, how does today's Windows customer decide which version of Windows Vista to buy? 

First, we need to eliminate from our list Vista Starter Edition and Vista Enterprise as neither is available to the consumer.  As with its XP counterpart, Vista Starter Edition is limited to sales in emerging markets and Vista Enterprise is an enhanced version of Vista Business tailored to the needs of individual organizations.  It is only available directly from Microsoft.  This leaves us with four versions of Windows Vista to consider.

  • Windows Vista Home Basic
  • Windows Vista Home Premium
  • Windows Vista Business
  • Windows Vista Ultimate

Looking at each one individually:

Windows Vista Home Basic:

In terms of functionality, this edition is the Vista equivalent to Windows XP home.  If you are upgrading an existing Windows XP Home workstation and you don't care about the AERO interface (or your workstation cannot run the AERO interface) then this edition is for you.  You should ask yourself though why you should bother to upgrade at all if you are happy with your hardware and you don't care about AERO!

Buying a new machine?  If you have a choice, don't waste your money on this edition!  (If you have no choice but the price is too good to pass up, you can take advantage of Microsoft Anytime Upgrade to Home Premium for $80.) 

Windows Vista Home Premium:

This edition does everything Windows XP Media Center/Tablet PC Editions do.  Plus it includes the AERO interface (which is, after all, the real reason you want Vista in the first place.)  This is the version that most consumers should seek out. 

If you are upgrading an existing workstation, you might need to upgrade your graphics card to get AERO capabilities.  Such cards are available for under $100. 

If you are buying a new workstation, this edition is usually a $30 up-tick in price.  However, some OEMs won't sell you this edition unless you are also buying 1GB of RAM.  Still, the best choice!

Windows Vista Business

If you run a small business and want to secure your network, this is the edition for you.  Just the same ...  If you don't know that you need it, then you don't!  This edition includes the same network-centric features as Windows XP Professional.  It permits all users and workstations to be members of Active Directory and it permits Remote Desktop Access to any workstation running this edition.  It lacks the parental controls and multimedia features of Home Premium but, once again, most people won't notice. 

Windows Vista Ultimate

As the name says, this is the ultimate Windows Vista product.  It's got everything.  Furthermore, Microsoft promises to give you free enhancements as they become available If you need the best of Vista Home Premium and Vista Business, this is the edition for you -- but it's not cheap! 

That said, if you wish to upgrade more than one workstation in your home, buying Ultimate may be the most cost-effective choice because it entitles to you buy two additional licences of Home Premium for $50 each! 

For most consumers though, Vista Ultimate is over kill!

A note about hardware.

Don't be fooled by OEM marketing techniques.  Any edition of Windows Vista will run on a workstation with only 512MB of RAM -- and any edition (except Home Basic) will run the AERO interface on such a workstation.  Further, even most entry-level workstations on the market today have the graphics capability to run AERO.  (The notable exceptions being low-end laptops.)

Would I recommend running Vista on a 512MB machine?  Well, it will be sluggish -- you will be happier with 1GB of RAM -- but if you have to chose between RAM and processor speed, I'd choose a faster processor today knowing that tomorrow I can buy even more RAM for less money than it will cost me today. 

In summary:

  • Windows Vista Home Basic:  CRIPPLED (no AERO), but functionally suitable for anyone who uses Windows XP home now.
  • Windows Vista Home Premium:  RECOMMENDED -- fully functional for all home needs.
  • Windows Vista Business:  Suitable for small-to-medium businesses with network-centric capabilities and security in mind.
  • Windows Vista Ultimate:  Cost-effective for multiple-workstation upgrades.  Overkill for most users.

If I were Microsoft, I'd phase out Windows Vista Home Basic as soon as possible.  It's presence in the market place is completely unnecessary.  I see it as only a transition product anyway. 

I would also stop promoting Starter Edition or Enterprise Edition.  Those who are eligible for those editions already know who they are.  That would leave thee products, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate.  Their names are self-explanatory and, with a little better promotion of the Windows Vista Family Discount (and by including OEM licenses of this edition in the discount), Microsoft would reduce customer confusion and perhaps enhance goodwill. 

Topics: Microsoft, Windows

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Home Basic is a way to obtain Vista...

    ... on underpowered computers. Is that transitional? Yes, in the sense that many/most of the computers now in use can run Basic better than Premium.

    If Microsoft were interested in selling upgrades, then Basic would be better. But instead the company recognizes OEMs want to sell new computers and provides a bonus for buyers.

    There are only two versions of Vista, home and business. But each has specialized editions. That means the XP approach has not changed.
    Anton Philidor
    • The way I see it

      you have a Home, a Home Plus, a Business, and a Business Plus. So that's four, not two, but I don't think that's a bad thing. If they had named the editions as such I'd bet that there would not be so many "confused" customers.

      I do have my issues with Vista, but the offering of different tiers (all of which I find to be well defined) is not one of them. In fact this is something MS detractors have been clamoring for since the Judge Jackson trial, the ability to chose whether or not they want to buy "non-OS" functionality from MS (I put non-OS is quotation marks because its definition depends on who you talk to).
      Michael Kelly
      • Good point!

        If Home Basic exists, in part, to fend off the anti-trust folks by offering a bare bones alternative, then fine. But why take away AERO?????
        M Wagner
        • It lowers the bar significantly on the ....

          ... hardware requirements. Home Basic is intended to be the solution for those that don't want to upgrade their hardware.
          • Not really ...

            It lowers the PRICE for those without the hardware but when you sell it with systems which are AERO capable (almost every entry-level system on the market today), you cheat the cusomter out of the AERO experience.

            It would be different if Vista Basic ran faster than other editions on the same hardware but it does not!
            M Wagner
          • Aero is hardly a necessity

            at this point. Yes, there may be software down the line that takes advantage of it, but until then it's just eye candy. So at this point it makes sense to make it a part of a "Plus" package.

            Now if future software does rely on Aero's API, then yes, future all versions of Windows should have Aero, even the lowly Starter Editions. But of course by then MS won't have the legacy hardware issue hanging over their heads as much.
            Michael Kelly
          • What kind of system is truly NOT "Aero-capable"?

            The compiz compositing manager program can provide "wobbly windows" and the spinning "desktop cube" on a lowly Radeon 7000 graphics card, which is hardly state-of-the-art hardware. My Radeon 9200 is providing transparency, fade effects and 3D window animations too. So what kind of graphics hardware does Vista demand to run Aero? I find it hard to believe that [b]any[/b] new graphics hardware isn't capable of providing an impressive 3D desktop.
        • AERO is not needed

          I think Mike is right. Everytime Microsoft tries to add something to the OS someone screams for antitrust sanctions.
          There are lots of third part desktop customization solutions out there that have aero like desktops. So by providing Basic, Microsoft avoids any antitrust complaints from these companies.
    • But why bother?

      I assume your argument is that upgrading from XP to Home Basic is $60 cheaper than upgrading to Home Premium. This is true but is it worth it to put even $100 into an old machine to go from Windows XP Home to Vista Home Basic? If your hardware will not run AERO, I just don't see a compelling reason to upgrade to Vista.

      The underpowered computer I used when testing Vista was a circa 2000 Dell 4100 running at 866MHz with 512MB of PC100 RAM.

      Could it do everything I needed it to do -- including running Outlook across broadband from my employer's Exchange servers while at the same time running IE and Word? Yes, it could. It was sluggish to be sure but it could do the job without crashing.

      There was no noticable difference between running Home Basic and Ultimate on this machine. Vista was smart enough to load only what it needed.

      The other side of this is that most OEM machines on sale today can run AERO out of the box. Offering Home Basic on any such machine is a crime and vendors are misleading people into thinking that 512MB systems cannot run AERO.

      In the end, there was no reason for Microsoft to CRIPPLE Home Basic by leaving out AERO. They did so only to move people up to Home Premium at a higher price-point for features most people won't use. Had they had kept Home Basic as a shrink-wrap-only option, there would be less customer confusion due to too many choices.
      M Wagner
      • My argument was: pc's that can't run Premium...

        ... might be able to run Basic, so that people who wanted the newest operating system would not be required to purchase a new computer. People who did purchase a new computer would still be able to obtain Vista even if they could not afford a computer sufficiently powerful to run Premium.

        A great deal of your response was based on the assumption that the only reason to obtain Vista is AERO, and (apparently) that AERO will not run solely because of an absence of sufficient RAM.

        But many older computers cannot run AERO and probably other Premium features; that would require further testing. People obtaining an inexpensive new computer - which may be all they canj afford - may be as inadequate to the job as an older computer.

        I think that there are people who want Vista, not just AERO, and who are willing to accept Vista without AERO and any other features that might not run on their hardware. Legitimately, not being fooled, but making good choices on good information.

        These people have a product.

        Usually your views are well-considered, but this time they seem... caffeinated. Sorry. I like coffee, too, but being hasty and over-emphatic should be avoided. Especially on Friday.
        Anton Philidor
        • RAM is not a problem for AERO ...

          ... but that it the impression being left by OEMs. I object to consumers being misled that way.

          The best argument I have seen so far for Vista Home Basic is that it's presence in the marketplace keeps the anti-trust folks at bay by offering a bare bones version of Vista unencumbered by features users might want to buy from a third-party. Okay, I'll buy that argument!

          Nevetheless, the drawing card for most consumers interested in Vista is AERO. To leave it out of the base product is disingenuous on Microsoft's part. The cynic in me tells me that MS is doing this only to get people to pay for features they don't need in order to get the one feature MS is pushing, namely AERO!
          M Wagner
    • Bogus argument

      The functionality to detect unsupported hardware for aero, etc. exists in the higher
      versions of Vista since those will scale down automatically as needed.

      The whole purpose of this licensing is to get more money from the customer through
      upgrades. They buy a version they realize can't do what they want, and then pay to
      upgrade it. It's nothing more than double-dipping through market confusion and is a
      classic sign of a traditional robber baron monopolist.
      • I'll use Mac zealot logic

        [i]The whole purpose of this licensing is to get more money from the customer through upgrades.[/i]

        Sounds smart!! After all, whenever Apple does anything that is good for Apple's bottom line at the expense of the customer's wallet, the invariable battle cry from the Mac zealots is that this is a very smart thing for Apple to do. Or does that logic only work when it is Apple making money?
      • Basic translation of Non-Z's post

        MS has the right to make a buck. But at least MS:

        1. Allows you to choose how much functionality you want out of their OS versus third party add-ons (in other words, if you want to use third party network protocols or multimedia software, you can buy Windows Home Basic and not have to pay extra for the stuff you aren't using anyway).

        2. Allows you to change your mind. Obviously you can't downgrade, but if you undershoot your needs you just get the upgrade and you pay no more (or not much more) than if you had guessed right.
        Michael Kelly
  • You forgot

    Home Basic is the cheapest of the lot, so if you can't get a bare machine (you're going to do your own install) it'll save you the most money.

    Remember, though, to do the scrubbing in front of witnesses and get signed and notarized statements that you never accepted the EULA. Otherwise there's a presumption that you're bound by its terms.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
  • But the feature set isn't right.

    Having used Vista Home Premium for a couple of months now I'm really irritated with the lack of a couple of features that are only found in Ultimate. These talkbacks have been full of recriminations about Joe Average home user not taking proper care of their systems yet the ability to do a full system backup and the ability to encrypt sensitive data is only available in Ultimate not in any of the Home editions. What, only business' need to back up their PCs?
  • Home Basic is not Crippled and Aero is way over-hyped. DX10 is the only

    real reason to upgrade to vista.

    for those of us who are value-conscious, Basic is the best choice.

    it's back to just a capable OS without all the bloat that windows has gotten over the years that is most appealing about vista basic.

    go sell MS stock somewhere else.



    • DX10?

      That won't run on 90% of the machines being sold today. It takes a DX10 compatible grahpics card and those currently run $200 or better. So no system manufacturer is about to price themselves out of the market by selling a DX10 capable system.

      Can the game developers afford to create software that only runs on souped up gaming machines? Better off to spend their time on PS3 and XBOX360. Don't look for any DX10 games soon.

      And you want to by Vista for that?
      • Not strictly true.

        So long as the drivers are there, features not supported by the hardware should be manageable through software. This may not always be desirable as the software emulation may be horrendously slow but it's not a complete barrier.

        Besides, anyone likely to be getting Vista for DX10 support is probably going to be a games nut with a $500 graphics card anyway.
      • starcraft 2. 'nuff said about that...

        Starcraft 2 just entered development. you can pretty much be certain that they're going to create the ability to tap into DX10, even if they don't require it.

        people are drooling over it already... and Blizzard can afford to have it push the requirements up... DX10 will be accessible, as Blizzard would be able to use it as a big selling point (looks good? it looks nicer under DX10.)