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Windows 8 Packaging Details Emerge

February 25, 2013
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The next version of the Windows client OS will deliver two editions, Windows 8 Pro and Windows 8 Enterprise, for companies deploying x86- and x64-based computers. Windows 8 will also appear in a separate OS variant for ARM-based devices, and a single edition will serve consumers in most countries. For companies, the planned lineup makes key features such as multilanguage deployment and full-disk encryption simpler to license, but there will still be trade-offs among licensing costs, features, and hardware requirements, and pricing remains unknown.

Windows 8 Editions

Windows 8, which is now the official name—rather than merely a code name—for the next version of the Windows client OS, will be generally available in three user-installable editions for AMD or Intel x86- or x64-based processors:

  • Windows 8 Pro, which replaces Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate editions, and is intended for businesses and "tech enthusiasts"
  • Windows 8 Enterprise, which replaces Windows 7 Enterprise; it will be available for PCs covered by Software Assurance (SA) on the Windows client OS, and might also be available for PCs with certain subscription licenses (such as licenses for the Windows Intune PC management service)
  • Windows 8, which replaces Windows 7 Home Basic and Home Premium editions and is aimed at consumer PCs.

Microsoft also plans an unnamed local-language-only edition that will replace Windows 7 Starter edition for consumers in a small number of emerging markets, including China. The company will offer manufacturers of tablets and other devices Windows RT, previously referred to as Windows on ARM, or WOA. Windows RT resembles Windows Embedded Compact or Windows Phone, in that it will only be available to device manufacturers to preinstall. It will work with ARM-based devices using system on a chip (SoC) technology from Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments.

The Windows Media Center feature, formerly a part of Windows 7 Professional, will come in a separate media pack, which can be added to Windows 8 Pro and possibly Windows Enterprise.

Divvying Up the Features

Most of the new features in Windows 8 will be available in all editions and Windows RT. (For an illustration of the feature availability by edition, see "Windows 8 Editions and Features".)

All editions will include the new Metro user interface features, such as the Start screen, Semantic Zoom (a touch-optimized technique used by Metro-style applications to present and navigate through large sets of related data or content within a single view), Live Tiles, and Picture Password. In addition, every edition will include Metro-style applications for Mail, Calendar, People, Messaging, Photos, SkyDrive online file storage, Reader, Music, and Video. This marks the return of some features that were previously relegated to the separate Windows Live Essentials software in Windows 7. All editions will be able to obtain and update Metro-style applications from the Windows Store and use Windows Update for OS updates, such as security patches.

Other new Windows OS features, such as Internet Explorer 10, Connected Standby (an ultra-idle power state that delivers long battery life while enabling applications to remain connected and up to date), Windows Defender (antimalware), Trusted Boot (tamper-resistant boot process), and Reset and Refresh (OS reinstallation), will also be a part of all editions. Improved features such as Windows Explorer, Task Manager, and multi-monitor support, as well as a Remote Desktop client, will also be included in all editions.

The Multilanguage User Interface (MUI) feature, which allows end users or administrators to change the OS user interface language and other locale-specific interface elements, is available in all Windows 8 editions, including Windows RT. MUI is valuable for global organizations that want to deploy a single OS image to PCs in multiple countries, as well as organizations in countries that use multiple languages. The MUI feature has been restricted to the Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Windows 7, so the change will make it more widely available.

The most important features that differentiate the two business editions of Windows 8 are as follows:

Windows 8 Pro. The key features that differentiate Windows 8 Pro from Windows 8 include BitLocker and BitLocker to Go (full-disk encryption), Client Hyper-V (hardware virtualization on x64 only), the ability to join an Active Directory domain and use Group Policy to manage configuration, the Encrypting File System, and the ability to host a session with a Remote Desktop client. (BitLocker, like MUI, was only found in the Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Windows 7.)

Windows 8 Enterprise. The key feature that differentiates Windows 8 Enterprise from Windows 8 Pro is Windows To Go, which allows the Windows 8 desktop, including applications and data, to be booted from a USB drive so that, for example, users could run a corporate image on their home or other PC. Previous Windows 7 Enterprise exclusive features such as DirectAccess (remote VPN-like) access, BranchCache (file and data caching), and AppLocker (application execution policy) also carry forward to Windows 8 Enterprise.

Windows RT

Windows RT includes several features not available on other editions, including device encryption (negating the need for BitLocker and the Encrypting File System, which are not supported on Windows RT) and touch-enabled versions of Office 15 Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

Windows RT does not support installation and execution of existing x86- and x64-based applications and will lack Windows Media Player. Windows RT devices cannot join an Active Directory domain and cannot be managed or configured using Group Policy. However, they will have some degree of support for Exchange ActiveSync, a protocol widely used in smartphones and tablets that enables remote device management as well as synchronization of e-mail and other data. Microsoft also plans a Metro-based management agent that would work on Windows RT devices, although it has not yet specified how its management infrastructure will work in detail.

Still Some Trade-offs

Organizations may still have to make some trade-offs in picking an edition. For example, organizations that want to deploy tablets that run existing x86- and x64-based applications will have to use Windows 8 Pro or Enterprise on AMD- or Intel-based hardware rather than Windows RT on ARM-based devices. That in turn might mean accepting greater weight or lower battery life than an ARM device would deliver, although the capabilities of x86- and x64-based devices could improve with Windows 8.

Upgrades Possible, Some Licensing Details Not Clear

The Windows team blogs briefly describe two upgrade paths:

  • Customers with Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, and Home Premium can upgrade to Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro
  • Customers with Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate can upgrade to Windows 8 Pro.

Presumably, customers with Windows 7 Enterprise can upgrade to Windows 8 Pro (without SA) or Windows 8 Enterprise (with SA or an Intune subscription). Customers running Windows Vista or Windows XP may need to upgrade to Windows 7 before upgrading to Windows 8, but depending on the age of the hardware, it may be easier to obtain new hardware with Windows 8 preinstalled by an OEM.

Microsoft did not specify some licensing details that could prove important for businesses. Notably, it did not give pricing for the new licenses. It also did not specify whether organizations will be able to buy Windows upgrade licenses in volume licensing programs (as they can do today). Also unknown is whether organizations will be allowed to run earlier versions of Windows on PCs licensed for Windows 8, and if so, which earlier versions. Such "downgrade" rights will eventually be important for organizations that have standardized their PCs on Windows 7.

Availability and Resources

Windows 8 is currently available as a Consumer Preview. Directions anticipates that a release candidate or release preview will be available in the second or third quarter of 2012.

Preliminary details of Windows 8 editions are at www.windowsteamblog.com/windows/b/bloggingwindows/archive/2012/04/16/announcing-the-windows-8-editions.aspx.

Preliminary details of Windows 8 Enterprise and Software Assurance are at www.windowsteamblog.com/windows/b/business/archive/2012/04/18/introducing-windows-8-enterprise-and-enhanced-software-assurance-for-today-s-modern-workforce.aspx.