What was Microsoft thinking?

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?

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. 


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