Despite pleas from users to stop the confusion and craft one version of Windows 7, Microsoft is continuing down the path it followed with XP and Vista releasing multiple versions or SKUs (stock-keeping units) of Windows 7.
Six Windows 7 versions, to be precise. But most users only need to decide between two versions. Microsoft has said that 80 percent of users will be deploying Windows 7 Home Premium (consumers) or Windows 7 Professional (small businesses, remote workers). This is where Microsoft will put most of its marketing muscle.
"We have over 1 billion customers. It's hard to satisfy all of them [with a single version]," Windows General Manager Mike Ybarra has said. "There are vocal customers who want every feature, and more regular consumers who say 'I want a version that can grow with me.'"
Demo of the new superbar and Aero features in Windows 7.
Yet some analysts are accusing Microsoft of manipulating customers and padding profit margins with the high number of versions and bloggers are emphasizing that three versions are enough.
Here's a look at the features of each of the six Windows flavors and who might want them. Microsoft has not yet announced pricing for Windows 7.
Windows 7 Starter
This is the bare-bones, 32-bit only version of Windows 7 intended for users in developing countries, to serve the most basic computing needs.
Starter is designed for lightweight, portable netbooks, though Microsoft claims any of its versions will be able to run on netbooks.
Windows Starter 7 will not have the Aero Glass graphical user interface that is included in all other versions of Windows 7 (except Windows 7 Home Basic) and can only run three applications at a time. It will include the revamped taskbar and jump lists, Windows Media Player, the file-sharing feature Home Group (you can participate in a Home Group but cannot create one) and other basic features such as Action Center and Backup and Restore.
Starter will not be available in retail stores, and will only be offered pre-installed on new PCs by Microsoft OEMs.
Windows 7 Home Basic
Home Basic sits somewhere between Starter and Home Premium. It has all the features of Windows 7 Starter and will also only be available through OEM partners in developing countries. Also like Starter, it will not include the Aero Glass GUI.
Some of the features Home Basic has over Starter: the ability to run more than three applications at once; a 64-bit version; thumbnail previews from the taskbar; and Mobility Center, which allows you to manage the various networks that you connect to with your laptop.
Based on what Microsoft has announced about Home Basic (which is not very much), it shares the same features as Windows 7 Home Premium except there are no Aero Glass GUI features and other UI tweaks such as Aero Snap, Aero Peek and multi-touch. This version will not will not legally be available for sale in the United States.
Windows 7 Home Premium
Windows 7 Home Premium has all the features of Starter and Home Basic and then some. This is the mainstream retail version that nearly all consumers will be using. Windows 7 Home Premium will be available worldwide to Microsoft OEMs and sold in retail stores loaded on new PCs.
A step up from Windows Home Basic, Home Premium includes the Aero Glass GUI and new Windows navigation features such as Aero Glass, Aero Background, Windows Touch, Home Group creation, Media Center, DVD playback and creation, premium games and Mobility Center.
Windows 7 Professional
Also available worldwide, to OEMs and in retail, Windows 7 Professional has the features of Home Premium, but with added networking and data protection features for small businesses and those who frequently work at home.
Demo of notable features for IT admins in Windows 7.
Microsoft may have a hard time convincing customers that Home Premium isn't good enough for a small business — considering it is bound to be less expensive than Professional — but if it succeeds it will be by marketing Professional features such as Domain Join to connect to business networks, Encrypting File System for data protection and Location Aware Printing to better connect to printers at work and home.
Windows 7 Professional will not include the more buzzed-about business features such as DirectAccess and BranchCache. They show up in the next version up the food chain, Windows 7 Enterprise.
Windows 7 Enterprise
Windows 7 Enterprise is only available to businesses through volume licensing. It includes all the features of Windows 7 Professional plus more security and networking features.
Businesses covered by Microsoft's Software Assurance will get Windows 7 Enterprise at no additional charge. Features that differentiate Enterprise from Professional are: BitLocker (encrypts data on internal and external drives); DirectAccess (connectivity to a corporate network without VPN); AppLocker (prevents unauthorized software from running); and BranchCache (speeds up the accessing of large remote files at branch offices).
Windows 7 Enterprise is designed for the corporate world and will only be used by large businesses. It will not be available at retail or by OEMs for pre-installation on a new PC.
Windows 7 Ultimate
Ultimate, the supersize version of Windows, includes all the features of all the other versions. Think of it as Windows 7 Enterprise for consumers.
Ultimate will be the most expensive version, so it's doubtful that many people will use it other than the occasional super-user who wants every possible feature. Microsoft is not likely to heavily promote Windows 7 Ultimate. Most regular users do not need all the security and networking features and there doesn't appear to be much in Ultimate for businesses that isn't already in Windows 7 Enterprise.
Microsoft has said that OEMs will be able to pre-install Windows 7 Ultimate on new machines and that there will be limited availability in retail.