Windows 7: Release Candidate 1 Previewby Ryan Smith and Gary Key on May 5, 2009 11:00 PM EST
- Posted in
Microsoft has been no stranger to unusual names. We scoffed when they named XP, and we scoffed again when they named Vista. However Windows 7 sets a new level of bewilderment. Depending on how you wish to count your Windows versions, you can come up with an order that makes Windows 7 the 7th version of Windows - counting the NT kernel desktop releases is one such example - but ultimately the list is as arbitrary as the name.
With the exception of NT4, Microsoft has always made at least two versions of Windows per major kernel, with the second releases being a refinement of what came before rather than a massive rearchitecting. Win98 refined Win95, WinXP refined Win2K. And Windows 7, as it turns out, refines Vista (even if MS wants to get as far from that name as possible). Windows 7’s kernel is recognized by Microsoft as version 6.1, and Vista was 6.0. While it’s true that kernel version numbers can be equally arbitrary, in this case it’s an appropriate number.
As Vista’s refinement, Windows 7 doesn’t bring with it anywhere near the level of change that Vista brought. With Vista we saw a new networking stack, a radically new video driver model, the moving of audio completely into software, UAC, and more. Meanwhile Windows 7 includes a number of new features, but nothing comparable to Vista’s great overhaul. If you’re a feature warrior looking for something big like Vista, you’re going to come away disappointed. If you’re looking for a smoother transition however Windows 7 should meet those expectations.
And for the name, clearly it’s a bad choice. The return to some kind of version numbering scheme is actually rather nice – it’s normally less arbitrary than a name and leaves no confusion about what order things come in – but to use a version numbering scheme you have to be consistent. Unless Microsoft intends to skip a kernel version number so that Windows 8 runs on the 8.0 kernel, this is only going to get worse as time goes on. It also has the interesting distinction of being harder to search for; “Win7” is a character too short for many sites that require a minimum term length, and “Windows 7” will be read by most software as two separate terms which can be pulled from anywhere.
So it may sound petty, but Microsoft could have picked something more sensible than Windows 7. (Ed: On the other hand, it still is less arbitrary than most CPU and GPU names)
Moving on, we have the matter of the different editions of Windows 7. Microsoft has not completely clarified this matter so we’re going to need to revisit this when Windows 7 finally ships, but they have given us enough solid information to accurately talk about the important bits.
The biggest news is that the Ultimate/Business/Home Premium schism has been resolved with Windows 7. When WinXP Home and Pro were split into more versions, the “everything including the kitchen sink” edition of Windows that was Pro and became Ultimate also became really, really expensive compared to the other editions. The problem was a combination of pricing and how Microsoft decided to split up features and at the same time carve out an extremely high-end niche. Users on Home Premium couldn’t get Remote Desktop. Users on Business couldn’t get Media Center and the built-in MPEG-2 codec. Meanwhile Business was priced higher than Home Premium, but it wasn’t a superset of Home Premium. Ultimate offered everything, but it also included a number of Enterprise features that were useless for even most users. Ultimately power users who wanted something similar to WinXP Pro (mainly, remote desktop and file encryption) were left in a pickle, and everyone else was confused on what edition to get.
With Windows 7, all editions have once again become supersets of other editions, going from Starter to Ultimate. Furthermore, Business edition has been renamed (back) to Professional to reflect this change, and with the return to being a superset of Windows Home Premium it regains its multimedia abilities. For all intents and purposes, Professional is once again the power-user and business user edition. The difference in turn between it and Enterprise/Ultimate has been reduced to BitLocker, Virtual Hard Disk booting, and some other associated enterprise-level features.
This change also marks a collapse in how many versions of Windows 7 are on the retail market. Only Home Premium and Professional will be widely sold at retail and shipped on OEM computers. Enterprise continues to be for volume use, and Home Basic has been demoted to just “emerging markets.” The unknowns at this point are where Starter and Ultimate will best fit in. There is some concern that Starter will find its way onto netbooks in developed markets in order to meet the kind of OS prices that such a cheap computer demands, however we can’t imagine such a castrated OS going over well with users. Previously it has been limited to the cheapest of the cheapest computers in emerging markets.
Meanwhile Microsoft is calling Ultimate a “limited retail and OEM” product, which we take to mean it won’t be sold on store shelves and instead would be limited to specialty retailers like Newegg, and pre-installed on few if any systems. There’s clearly going to be a need for a non-volume license edition of Enterprise (which is the role Ultimate fills) but Professional significantly reduces the practical value of it. Ultimate may very well end up being the pirate edition of Windows 7, because right now there’s even less going for it than what’s going for Vista Ultimate. Hopefully Microsoft will clarify this before Windows 7 launches.