Microsoft and PC makers readying more Windows 7 systems for small businesses

New Windows 7 PCs targeted expressly at small businesses are in the pipeline. And so are a set of Microsoft guidelines to help users choose the right "business PC." I could have used both of those a month or more ago when I was shopping for a new Windows 7 PC.

I run a (very) small business -- a freelance-writing business of one. When I was looking to buy a new Windows 7 PC this past fall, I have to admit I was underwhelmed.

I saw lots of shiny new PCs aimed at retail/consumer customers with super glossy displays and nail-polish colors. And I saw lots of plain-vanilla, pricey machines that seemed to be targeted at corporate users who needed higher-end features like the ability to join securely a corporate network. But I didn't see much or hear much about Windows 7 machines for folks working in businesses with a handful of PCs. I wanted a stylish but professional, lightweight PC with substantial RAM and disk space that wasn't optimized for playing games and watching movies -- and that wasn't in the $2,000-plus price range. Did these kinds of machines exist -- beyond my check-list dreams?

For the most part, no. But new Windows 7 SMB systems are coming, said Sandrine Skinner, a Director in the Windows Commercial Product Management unit. Microsoft is working with PC makers including Dell, HP and Lenovo on them. (She wouldn't share any additional hints about what's coming, other than to say "stay tuned"). Microsoft also is working on a set of guidelines to help SMB customers choose the right version of Windows 7 for their needs, and hopes to have those guidelines out before the middle of 2010, she said.

(The lag time between Windows 7's general-availability date of October 22 and the availability of these new SMB PCs and guidelines isn't a deal breaker. Many business users have said they aren't planning to move to Windows 7 until some time in 2010 or 2011. But I'd argue Microsoft and its partners need to come to market with these sooner rather than later, if they want to ride the current consumer wave of interest in Windows 7.)

For many SMB users, Windows 7 Professional is likely to be the right fit, Skinner said. Professional is a SKU which Microsoft hasn't done as much to evangelize as it has Home Premium and Enterprise. (Enterprise is for volume licensees with Software Assurance contracts only.) Professional costs $199 (for an upgrade from a previous version of Windows) and $299 for a new, full retail version. (Home Premium goes for $119 and $199, comparatively.)

Windows 7 Professional includes some features that Home Premium doesn't, such as location-aware printing, domain join, encrypted file system, and remote-desktop connectivity. It doesn't include BitLocker/BitLocker To Go encyrption, DirectAccess (VPN replacement technology), BranchCache, AppLocker and the ability to boot from VHD (all of which are Enterprise and Ultimate features).

Professional also includes XP Mode, the virtualization capability that allows users to run XP applications that won't work natively on a Windows 7 machine -- especially custom, line-of-business apps -- inside of a virtualized XP environment. (XP Mode is supported on Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate, but no other Windows 7 SKUs). The development of XP Mode and integration of it into Windows 7 came from direct feedback from Microsoft's partners and SMB customers, Skinner said.

"We had planned to offer Virtual PC. But they (partners and customers) pushed us to make this less technically complex," Skinner said.

Is Pro the right choice for every small business user? No, Skinner admitted. Someone like me -- who doesn't have a server and can simply back up to a SkyDrive -- probably doesn't need all the features of Windows 7 professional. In fact, I didn't buy a Windows 7 Professional PC; I ended up buying an ASUS thin-and-light UL30A 13-inch system in silver (rather than the usual black) running Windows 7 Home Premium. It's been great so far, though I wish they had offered a matte-screen option.

Skinner said to expect Microsoft to offer "a set of recommendations for a 'business PC'" some time in the first half of next year. She also said to watch for Microsoft to do more Windows 7 advertising to the SMB segment of the market. She also said Microsoft is going to be expanding its "Ignite" early adopter/tester program for Windows SMB partners and customers, going forward. For Windows 7, there were only 130 or so Ignite testers in 30 countries, who offered Microsoft direct feedback on Windows 7, starting with the Beta release of the product in January 2009.

Any other SMB users have any feedback on what you would like to see, PC-wise and/or guideline-wise to help you decide when and whether to move to Windows 7?