Open letter to Microsoft: It's time for a single version of Windows

Microsoft has announced that the official launch date of Windows 7 will be October 22. Between now and then, the software juggernaut still has time to fix the product's biggest problem: too many versions. It's time for one version of Windows.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

An Open Letter to Microsoft:

Windows XP did a great thing. It united two operating systems - the Windows 9x codebase and the Windows NT codebase (including Windows 2000). I would argue that the move to unify and standardize on one version of Windows was the primary reason for the almost-universal adoption of Windows XP by businesses, especially in the United States.

Simplification and standardization have always been powerful forces in the technology world, but today they have become even more valuable because buyers are deluged with a flood of choices, even when they have the simplest goals. And, today, the truth is that users and companies don't want to think about the operating system. They simply want the OS to work smoothly and get out of the way.

For the 88% of computer users whose machines are powered by Microsoft Windows, upgrading to the latest version - or even choosing the right computer to buy - got a lot more confusing in 2007 with the release of Windows Vista because it was sold in four versions: Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate.

This was one of the major drawbacks that led to the failure of Vista (I've previously written about the other reasons) and I certainly hoped that this would be one of the mistakes corrected in Windows 7. Unfortunately, it's gotten worse. There are now six planned versions of Windows 7: Starter Edition, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate.

With the official launch of Windows 7 looming on October 22, I would strongly encourage a change of course. Flatten the whole strategy and offer a single version of Windows 7 for $50. There's still time to get this right and doing it has the potential to greatly simplify computing for both consumers and businesses and ultimately increase Windows sales.

The single version of Windows 7 should be based on the operating system that's currently called Home Premium. It's time to bring an end to the division between Windows for the home and Windows for business. While the division existed in Windows XP, and before that in the split between Windows 9x and Windows NT/2000, there's never been a better time to end it because the gray area between the two versions is growing.

The additional business functionality that organizations need for networking and security in large computer networks should be sold separately as an "Enterprise Feature Pack" and tied to the deployment of Windows Server (a completely separate product that is not part of the one version of Windows 7 that I'm suggesting). A lot of the additional functionality in the professional version of Windows is tied to integration with Windows Server, such as Group Policy and domain membership.

Most sizable organizations and their IT departments are going to buy all of this extra business functionality as part of volume licensing agreements such as Software Assurance (just like they do now), so having a single version of Windows 7 wouldn't actually be much of a change for them.

However, it would be a major change for the 5.3 million small businesses in the United States with 20 employees or less (that's 89% of all businesses, according to the U.S. Census Bureau). Small businesses often end up with a mix of the home and professional Windows systems. That's because many of their laptop and desktop machines are purchased from retailers such as Best Buy and Office Depot (and often loaded with the home OS), while others are purchased online from companies such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard and loaded with professional versions of Windows.

These small businesses don't usually have IT departments, but instead rely on tech-savvy managers to wear the IT hat or hire local IT consultants to serve as a resource. As a result, they don't typically have a long-term IT strategy in place and don't always have a good idea of which version of Windows to buy on a new PC - or may not have much choice if they are buying a system at a retail location. Then they have to cobble together a network of machines with different versions of Windows as their business grows and they evolve into a larger company.

But, small businesses aren't the only ones who would benefit from a single version of Windows. As the line between work and personal life continues to blur, it creates a larger gray area where the needs of users can fall between home and professional use.

Full-time telecommuters and employees who work from home part-time are both growing trends, and they involve workers buying their own PCs or using home PCs to access corporate systems. Sometimes these users even get stipends from their employers to purchase their own PCs. Should these users buy systems with the home or professional version of Windows installed? Similarly, we have companies like Citrix that are experimenting with programs that give employees a stipend and allow them to purchase their own computers rather than getting a PC from the company's IT department. These employees face the same dilemma of selecting the right version of Windows for them. It's time to put an end to that confusion.

While I realize that most PCs that are currently running Windows got it pre-installed from a new computer or had it installed in a standardized way by IT, there is the potential for more upgrades than ever with Windows 7. In fact, it has the potential to be the most widely-upgraded Windows of all time, due to the sheer number of users and businesses who either skipped Windows Vista altogether or would like nothing better than to migrate off of it.

In all fairness, the biggest problem with Vista is an image problem - as the Mojave Experiment clearly depicted. Windows 7 is a simpler Windows that actually strips out functionality and applications from Vista in order to make the OS leaner, faster, and a better fit on older hardware. Windows 7 also makes subtle changes under the hood to address some of Vista's sluggishness and bugginess.

As I recently wrote, there's nothing groundbreaking in Windows 7, but the speed and stability improvements will make it an attractive upgrade if only because it does a better job of getting out of the way. With the recession slowing down new PC sales and a U.S. market highly saturated with PCs that are still very useful, the Windows 7 upgrade market could be massive - but only if it's easy to understand for users and simplifies life for businesses. That's why it's time for a single version of Windows 7.

As such, I submit this appeal in the same spirit that Bill Gates did in his Open Letter to Hobbyists in 1976.

Jason Hiner Editor in Chief, TechRepublic

UPDATED: On Twitter, Rodney Buike pointed out that Microsoft now offers Enterprise and Starter editions of Windows Vista. That means that Vista and Windows 7 both have six versions.

See also: Ed Bott's From Starter to Ultimate: What's really in each Windows 7 edition?

For more insights on Microsoft, Windows 7, and other tech topics, follow my Twitter stream at twitter.com/jasonhiner

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