When Microsoft announced its list of Windows 7 versions last week, there was intense debate amongst bloggers about whether Redmond had made things simpler or more complex for consumers. As you may have heard by now, there will be six versions (Windows 7 Enterprise is not pictured at right), ranging from the extremely-limited Windows 7 Starter, to the mainstream Windows 7 Home Premium , to the full-featured Windows 7 Ultimate. Engadget’s Joshua Topolsky criticized the list of 6 different versions as ” worse than you could have possibly imagined.” Meanwhile, Paul Thurrott looks at the same list of features and editions and writes that “unlike with Vista, where Microsoft crowded the market with too many mainstream product editions, Windows 7 will ship in just a handful of common-sense product editions.” So who is right? The answer really depends on how the different versions are marketed to consumers and deployed by OEMs. ZDNet’s Ed Bott says that, of the six versions, there are only three that matter: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate/Enterprise (which are the same thing, just sold in either single or volume licenses). If that’s the case, then we’re close to the simplicity of Windows XP’s two main versions. However, we’re concerned about the possibility that Windows 7 Starter, which will not be sold at retail but will be a lower-cost option than Home Premium for OEMs (Basic won’t be sold in developed markets), could find its way into netbooks or even full-fledged notebooks. What’s wrong with Windows 7 Starter? It not only strips out user-interface luxuries like Aero Glass, but also limits the user to running only three simultaneous applications. Could vendors really subject their customers to that kind of limitation? Will we be seeing Windows 7 Starter edition as a configuration option when we buy a system from Dell, Lenovo, or HP’s online stores? Shockingly, the answer is yes, at least when it comes to HP’s netbooks. Last week, the maker of the Mini-Note series told Computer World that it plans to sell its netboooks with a choice of Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, or (gasp) Starter. Given the low margins and price sensitivity of the netbook market, we wouldn’t be surprised if many other netbook vendors followed and sold their systems with the feature-crippled operating system, even as the only choice. In today’s market, most Vista netbooks (ex: the Dell Inspirion Mini 12) run Vista Basic, but at least with Basic the user is only sacrificing additional visual effects, not the ability to multitask effectively. We were wondering how the three application limit works and whether tray apps like virus shields, firewalls, and pesky QuickTime icons count against the limit so we asked around. Our contact at Microsoft PR tells us that he doesn’t have full technical details but the official word is:
Background “services” in the system tray such as an antivirus service, Bluetooth service, fingerprint reader services, etc., do not count as one of the three programs unless the user opens up the full program to run it.
We also consulted Ed Bott who pointed out that Windows Starter edition has existed in developing countries for XP since 2005, was later released for for Vista, and has always had a three application limit. He pointed us to Paul Thurrott’s detailed review of the original XP Starter Edition circa 2005, where Thurrott describes what happens when you attempt to launch a fourth app:
The system displays a notification window telling you that you can only run three applications. The notification roughly reads as, “With Windows XP Starter Edition, you can run three programs at a time. To open a new program, please save your work, close one open application, and open the new application again.”
Will netbook users be seeing this kind of error message in the near future? It’s quite possible. And lest you think that it’s impossible to run three applications at once on a tiny netbook screen, Lilliputing’s Brad Linder suggests that all you would need to do is run a messaging app like Skype, a Web browser, a media player, and one more thing (e-mail, photo browser, virus scan actively scanning) and you would surpass the limit. What do you think? Could you live with a three concurrent application limit on your netbook? We couldn’t, but let us know how you feel in the comments section below. Hat Tip: Lilliputing