Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro: Microsoft's Lessons Learned

The announcement from Microsoft late yesterday touts the three versions of Windows, and if you read it through to the end, you'll count four. And you may think, once again, there's something being pulled over your eyes that looks like wool and smells like wool. The surprise here, at least so far, is that there's nothing that really requires hiding: From the typical consumer's perspective, there will be Windows 8, which on a select group of PCs will have stuff added to it. And from the typical retailer's perspective, there will be two SKUs of Windows 8, including an obvious premium tier containing the word "Pro" in its name.

And that's how it should be.

The part that consumers will have to know boils down to this: All versions of Windows 8 will contain the new "Metro-style" environment and the WinRT runtime. There will be a "Pro" version that mostly adds enhancements for making better use of the classic Desktop mode, as well as adding support for premium features such as "Boot from VHD" (the ability to render the installation in the same storage format used for virtualization).

And there will be a special version of Windows 8 for low-power devices using ARM rather than Intel processors. It will be called Windows RT, which is a poor choice of name because the recovery environment is known as Windows RE. And though it will run something that looks like the Windows Desktop we know and (partly) love, it won't be because ARM processors can't run software compiled for Intel processors.

That fourth SKU, called Windows 8 Enterprise, will be reserved for business licensees with Software Assurance agreements, and will include those features that make the OS more suited to remote management via Windows Server.

Quite frankly, there's not a lot to be confused by here, which for some has proven to be confusing in itself. What dastardly scheme could Microsoft be pulling, by daring to produce a product line arranged so sensibly?

The Iceberg That Sunk Vista

The reason this matters so much is because of one of the many converging factors that led to the premature sinking of Windows Vista in the public conscience. Vista was supposed to look and feel demonstrably better than XP ¬¬- it was this feeling that was originally supposed to have sold Vista more than any single new function or feature it contained.

But Windows was a slave to two masters other than Microsoft: One was the OEMs, especially those who produce the hardware that would make this new feeling felt, and who insisted that hardware not be commoditized too soon. Vista's new "Aero" look-and-feel, from the OEM's perspective, qualified as a premium feature. Customers can't pay extra for something that isn't released in limited quantity.

The second set of external masters were the retailers, who (especially in the pre-iPod era) often insist on at least three value tiers (good / better / best). Salespeople can then dole out value in increments, knowing that folks often won't settle for "good," but accepting that the desire for "best" will usually let them settle for "better."

To appease both sets of masters, in 2006 Microsoft created two separate classes of distinguishing factors for Vista. First was the logo program, for which participating OEMs qualified by producing hardware that met certain performance characteristics (many of which, we found out later, were suggested by the OEMs themselves). At first, this created a ridiculous three-tier logo system, using the language "Vista Capable," "Vista Ready," and "Vista Compliant" to denote varying stages of hardware support. Although the language was later boiled down to two tiers, consumers were so confused by the system that several of them filed a class-action suit against Microsoft.

And then there came the actual SKU divisions themselves, for which there were no fewer than six (6): There was Vista Home Basic, which you'd think would be the value-tier option except that there was also Vista Starter Edition (which lacked Aero, so why buy it?). Then there was Vista Home Premium, which was not the premium edition. The premium edition was Vista Ultimate, though for enterprises that did not want the shame of purchasing the premium Vista in the same package as enthusiasts were buying, there was Vista Enterprise. Did I leave out one? Yes, I believe I did: Vista Business, which was not Vista Enterprise but rather the version made from the remnants of Vista Home Premium after home-like features such as Media Center and Parental Controls were removed.

There actually appeared, for a brief time, an offshoot of the logo program which denoted the upgradability of a PC: "Vista Premium Ready" (not "Home Premium Ready") meant that a PC with Home Basic pre-installed could be upgraded to Premium for a fee.

Anyone who thinks Microsoft's position in retail has weakened since the dark days of Vista hasn't played Xbox recently. Giving retailers two and only two Windows 8 SKUs for Intel PCs, with one saying "Pro" and the other not saying "Pro," demonstrates a degree of moxie that Microsoft was missing in 2006. It's also closer to the ideal situation I suggested last year: that there should eventually become one Windows that adapts itself to whatever device it's managing at the time. It's good to see this kind of sensibility from Microsoft. Now if only the folks who came up with the retail plan could talk sense into the UI design team, we could have ourselves a real product.