Microsoft Aims Windows 7 Pro at Small Businesses

With Windows 7, Microsoft (MSFT) aims to please both consumers and businesses large and small.

Wait a minute -- small?

Yes, a lesser-known aspect of the Windows 7 strategy is to appeal to SMBs (small and midsized businesses). Microsoft defines a small business as anywhere from five to 100 employees, and anything between 100 and 1,000 employees is considered to be midsize. Most of these companies need more than what Windows 7 Home Premium offers, but cannot afford the Software Assurance licences required for Windows 7 Enterprise edition.

In between these two worlds is Windows 7 Professional, a version of the new OS that is pricier than Home Premium (Professional costs $199 for an upgrade version and $299 for a new, full retail version. Home Premium goes for $119 and $199), but offers more networking and security features.

Some examples of Win7 Pro features: location-aware printing to connect to printers anywhere; remote desktop connectivity; encrypted file system; the Windows XP Mode virtualization feature that allows users to run XP applications that won't work natively on a Windows 7 machine; and domain join, which allows easier connection from a personal laptop to a business network.

Business with 10 or fewer employees may not need the features of Windows 7 Professional, but for anything beyond 10 employees Windows 7 Home Premium may not be enough, says Sandrine Skinner, a director in the Windows Commercial Product Management group.

Recognizing a marketing and revenue opportunity, Microsoft has started packaging Windows 7 Professional on PCs from hardware partners like Dell, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and marketing them to SMBs. Microsoft is also working on guidelines to help SMBs pick the right version of Windows 7 for their needs, and plans to release these guidelines before mid-2010.

In a recent interview, Skinner admits that SMBs are a group that was not given enough attention with Windows Vista. Therefore, Microsoft baked new features into Windows 7 Professional with SMBs in mind.

Here is an edited version of CIO.com's interview with Skinner.

When will Windows 7 Professional machines designed for SMBs be available, and which OEMs will be manufacturing them?

We already have some great options available today, including the Dell Vostro V13, Lenovo's ThinkPad SL series and HP's ProBook 5310m. We will keep working with OEMs and retailers to make sure small businesses have a broad selection of PCs to choose from and that they all address their business needs.

What are Windows 7 Professional features that SMBs are clamoring for? Can you provide some examples?

A few examples that address three key specific business needs are productivity, data backup and application compatibility.

In terms of productivity, we hear from customers that new user interface features such as the Taskbar, Jumplists and the Snap features as well as mobility features like location-aware printing, are very helpful. In many cases, these practical benefits result in significant time savings, which in the end impact a small businesses' bottom line and can increase time spent with customers.

[ For complete coverage on Microsoft's new Windows 7 operating system -- including hands-on reviews, video tutorials and advice on enterprise rollouts -- see CIO.com's Windows 7 Bible. ]

Another benefit is Advanced Backup, which lets customers back up their files and their entire PC image on a network through automated scheduling so they don't have to worry about their documents in case of a disaster.

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Also, SMBs can still leverage their line of business applications, which may have been custom built for their business to run on Windows XP, by using Windows XP Mode. XP Mode can extend the life of many older productivity apps by making it possible to run them on Windows 7.

I've just scratched the surface here in terms of features and benefits and would encourage small businesses to check out our customized Web site.

What do you say to midmarket companies that find themselves needing Windows 7 enterprise features like DirectAccess or BitLocker to Go, but are not in a position to do a Software Assurance agreement?

We recognize every business has a unique set of needs and in this scenario, we also offer various Volume Licensing [VL] options to midmarket customers that provide flexible options. We currently provide a VL promotion to midmarket customers on Open Licensing and encourage customers to get a hold of a licensing specialist to learn more about how to upgrade to Windows 7 Enterprise if they want to use the features you mention, namely DirectAccess and BitLocker, amongst others.

How will you be marketing the Windows 7 SMB machines to entrepreneurs and small business owners: TV, Web ads, word of mouth?

While we do not share specific details on our advertising campaigns, we can tell you that we have been working directly with SMB customers and partners through our Small Business Ignite early-adopter program. The program proved to be a great way to get their great feedback on what they care about and what they want to get out of their PCs.

As a result, we used this input to give small businesses what they asked for. We've seen a lot of early excitement, which seems to be spreading virally and through word of mouth -- both for customers and partners.

Will Microsoft be encouraging retail stores or resellers to create package deals for Windows 7 SMB PCs to entice buyers, or does MS stay out of pricing? What other ways can Microsoft make Windows 7 SMB PCs financially attractive?

Based on our partner approach, we're definitely focused on delivering small businesses the choice they're looking for at the right prices. Based on local market needs, we're working with our partners to bring the best value to our small-business customers across the world. For example, in France we just launched the Small Business Assurance program for organizations that have between one and 50 PCs.

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