Over at ZDNet, my friend Jason Hiner has published an open letter to Microsoft, arguing that it’s not too late for Microsoft to scrap the six planned editions of Windows 7 and release the new OS in only one version. I admire Jason’s bold Hail Mary, but it’s presumably way too late for his scenario. Presumably Microsoft considered streamlining the Windows 7 lineup long ago–it caught plenty of flack over all the Vista variants–and made a willful decision to err on the side of more versions rather than fewer. If it hasn’t gone with a game plan like Jason’s by now, it’s just not in its DNA to do so.
I like Jason’s proposal that customization of Windows 7 for different types of users be done through feature packs rather than different versions of the OS. But I suspect that Microsoft is now deeply invested in the philosophy of offering different versions of its OS that it can sell at different price points to PC manufacturers who sell everything from $300 netbooks to $3000 luxury PCs. (Apple can sell OS X in just one version in part because it’s its own customer for OSes and doesn’t have to try and make everybody happy.)
The main problem with all those versions of Windows 7 isn’t that multiple versions of a product is inherently problematic. (Choice is good, no?) It’s that the differences between the Windows variants are subtle and hard to remember. At least it’s not yet as nightmarishly complicated as trying to decide which version of Crest toothpaste to buy.
Microsoft got this right with Windows XP, which came in two reasonably easy-to-distinguish variants: Home and Pro. And in the era of the really cheap PC, I think the company does need a really cheap version of Windows, so Windows 7 Starter Edition makes sense, too. If Microsoft were to offer three versions of Windows–plus an enterprise pack for corporate users–it would offer both choice and clarity. But I suspect we’ll have to wait until Windows 8 before there’s any chance of the Windows lineup getting simpler. And even then, it seems equally likely that it’ll get more complex.