One Little, Two Little, Three Little Windows…

You would think that many people, even those not truly computer – savvy, usually know which version of Windows they are running on their Windows machines. Insofar as knowing whether or not they are running Windows 98 or Windows XP, this is usually, but far from universally true. What most people don’t realize is that for all intents and purposes there are at least four versions of Windows XP installation disks that are all mutually exclusive.

Yes, four. If you decide to include the corporate open license versions, there are even more.

Those of you stuck at two (XP Home and Pro) can be excused for your confusion, because in truth, that is what Microsoft will tell you. What Microsoft doesn’t tell you is that there are two versions of XP Home: The one you buy over the counter, and the “OEM” version that is usually preinstalled on your machine when you buy it from Dell (or Gateway, etc.). While the actual copy of Windows on the disk is identical between the retail and OEM versions, these both have separate disks, and separate sets of installation keys, and separate installers.

Wait, it gets much worse. For the tech, anyway.

Many people who need Windows XP reinstalled have lost their original disks. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to carry around a copy of the various flavors (OEM and retail) of XP home and pro. Guessing which to use is also usually pretty easy based on what OS was originally installed on the machine, which we can often discover by looking for the Microsoft label on the side. It’s critical that we use the correct disk, because with the new activation features, if you don’t get the right version on, you don’t have a valid activation key, and 30 days later Windows stops working.

Imagine, though, the confusion for the poor user who doesn’t realize there is a difference. I see enough people who don’t know they can’t use a friends’ copy of XP pro to fix XP home. Compound this with the fact that many home users who upgraded to XP in the first place often lose their keycodes, and reinstallation becomes nearly impossible unless you’re sufficiently geeky to keep rescue tools like Knoppix around, and USB thumb drives.

So what is Microsoft doing to make things easier for us, the users?

Nothing.

Worse than nothing.

According to a recent article at Ars technica , there will be seven, yes, seven versions of Windows “Vista”, destined to replace Windows XP. Hopefully, these also don’t come in OEM and retail flavors because at this point, I’m beginning to get confused as to which version is capable of what, and I pity the non computer geek. Carrying four CD’s around is annoying enough, and at least I know what I’m doing. Usually.