Windows 8 Will Come in Four Versions

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Finally! After years of confusing consumers with multiple, slightly different versions of the same operating system, Microsoft announced today that Windows 8 will come in only four versions: One for home use, one for business, one for devices running ARM chips, and one for large enterprises that buy in bulk.

For most people buying an operating system for a traditional desktop or laptop, the choice will be between just two versions. The version called simply "Windows 8" is designed for home users. "Windows 8 Pro" is for business users and includes features for encrypting a file system, virtualization, and domain management.

"Windows RT" is the new name for what had been called Windows on ARM. You won't be able to purchase it on its own; it'll come preinstalled on PCs and tablets that run ARM processors. Windows RT won't be able to run traditional X86/64 desktop software. Instead, it'll run touch-oriented apps based on Windows Runtime (or WinRT), Microsoft's programming model for mobile apps. Apps for the touch-oriented Metro interface are built using Windows Runtime.

Windows RT will come with special touch-oriented versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

[RELATED: PCWorld's Windows 8 coverage]

Here's Microsoft's chart detailing some of the differences:

Windows 8: Key Features by Version

Feature nameWindows 8Windows 8 ProWindows RT
Upgrades from Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium x x  
Upgrades from Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate   x  
Start screen, Semantic Zoom, Live Tiles x x x
Windows Store x x x
Apps (Mail, Calendar, People, Messaging, Photos, SkyDrive, Reader, Music, Video) x x x
Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote)     x
Internet Explorer 10 x x x
Device encryption     x
Connected standby x x x
Microsoft account x x x
Desktop x x x
Installation of x86/64 and desktop software x x  
Updated Windows Explorer x x x
Windows Defender x x x
SmartScreen x x x
Windows Update x x x
Enhanced Task Manager x x x
Switch languages on the fly (Language Packs) x x x
Better multiple monitor support x x x
Storage Spaces x x  
Windows Media Player x x  
Exchange ActiveSync x x x
File history x x x
ISO / VHD mount x x x
Mobile broadband features x x x
Picture password x x x
Play To x x x
Remote Desktop (client) x x x
Reset and refresh your PC x x x
Snap x x x
Touch and Thumb keyboard x x x
Trusted boot x x x
VPN client x x x
BitLocker and BitLocker To Go   x  
Boot from VHD   x  
Client Hyper-V   x  
Domain Join   x  
Encrypting File System   x  
Group Policy   x  
Remote Desktop (host)   x  

(This is not a comprehensive list of all Windows 8 features.)

No Word on Pricing or Availability of Windows 8

In a blog post announcing the versions, Microsoft's Brandon LeBlanc didn't say how much the versions would cost, or when they'd be available. But he did make official what everyone assumed was true anyway: that the new OS will be called "Windows 8."

Microsoft's Brandon LeBlanc
The final version of Windows 8 won't be available for most consumers. "As with previous versions of Windows, we will also have an edition of Windows 8 specifically for those enterprise customers with Software Assurance agreements," LeBlanc wrote in a postscript. "Windows 8 Enterprise includes all the features of Windows 8 Pro plus features for IT organization that enable PC management and deployment, advanced security, virtualization, new mobility scenarios, and much more."

Admirable Restraint

Reducing its OS to four editions shows, for Microsoft, considerable restraint. Windows 7, for instance, comes in six flavors: Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate. In fairness, the Starter version is found mostly only in developing countries and the Enterprise version is available only to large corporations.

But that still left home buyers choosing among three options: Home Basic, Home Premium, and Ultimate. With Windows 8, the choice should be much clearer; most home users will choose the Windows 8 version. Only home "enthusiasts" might be interested in Windows 8 Pro, LeBlanc said.

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