Longhorn: One Version Or Many?

Microsoft insider Paul Thurrott, who publishes the SuperSite for Windows Web site, claims that Longhorn will ship in seven, count 'em, seven different versions when the operating system wraps. (According to Thurrott, the OS is now scheduled to release to manufacturing -- meaning it's heading to duplication -- in late May 2006.)

Among the seven editions, said Thurrott on his site, are a Starter Edition (similar to Windows XP Starter, the edition Microsoft's pitching to developing countries), Home, Premium/Media, Professional, Small Business, Mobility/Tablet PC, and finally, something he dubbed "Uber" Edition.

This version, said Thurrott, will be "a new product edition that bridges the consumer and business versions and includes all of the features from the Home, Premium, Pro, Small Business, and Tablet PC Editions (but not Starter Edition)."

Other analysts aren't so sure Microsoft will flood the channel with a plethora of products.

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"I see two routes Microsoft could take to Longhorn," said JupiterResearch's Joe Wilcox. "On the on [hand], all functionality rolls into a single operating system, where use determines features. On the other, Microsoft increases differentiation. I can see why they would want to do it both ways."

If time to market is any concern, said Wilcox, then the all-in-one approach, where Longhorn is delivered as a single code edition and hardware vendors are left to create its different uses, will be how Microsoft attacks the issue. "That's the fastest way to get [Longhorn] out the door," said Wilcox.

The anticipated Longhorn delivery date has already been pushed back several times, and some major features -- such as the new WinFS file system -- have been cut out of the OS and will be scheduled for separate release later.

"Microsoft has already chucked some features, and now they're saying a beta or two in 2005? Now's the time for Microsoft to look at the progress and make a decision. Actually, that should have been decided already."

If that's the route Microsoft takes, it would be up to the hardware manufacturers to decide how to differentiate their products. "If the question is getting the product out the door faster, one operating system makes the most sense," said Wilcox.

But he hedged his bet by noting that if past Microsoft action are any indicator, there will be plenty of Longhorn variations. "Microsoft's tendency is to create more versions [of a product] where there's an opportunity to tie back to server software and collect more client-access license fees." Good examples of such moves have been Visual Studio .Net 2005 and Office 2003.

Another reason to split Longhorn into a myriad of editions is to keep hardware makers happy, since an all-in-one OS would likely cost more for manufacturers to license. "Some of these [hardware] guys are already breaking ranks," said Wilcox, pointing out Hewlett-Packard's deals with Apple to make iPod music devices and Dell's flirting with Linux. "Microsoft has to keep the partners happy."

But if differentiation is the name of the game and multiple OSes do appear, Wilcox urged Microsoft to "make a real difference between versions," and not make the mistake of Windows XP Home and Professional, where the two were identical except for pricing and a few advanced networking features in the latter.

Both Wilcox and Thurrott expect more details to emerge, especially at April's WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Conference) in Seattle.

"I'm sure a decision will be made by WinHEC, but the sooner the better," concluded Wilcox.