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Microsoft boxes up Vista

Six versions of Microsoft's next operating system are being prepped and polished for launch in the second half of 2006.

Although it is still working to finish the code for Windows Vista, Microsoft has reached a decision on which versions of the operating system to offer.

Microsoft has settled on six versions, including an Ultimate edition that will combine the best of the company's corporate and consumer features. The company is aiming to have all of the versions ready for launch in the second half of this year.

"We're really trying to make sure we have the right set of offerings for different customers," said Barry Goffe, a director in Microsoft's Windows client unit.

Vista versions chart

Consumers will also be able to buy either Vista Home Basic or Vista Home Premium, in addition to the Ultimate edition, while businesses will be able to choose Vista Business or, if they have a volume licensing deal, they can opt for a higher-end Vista Enterprise edition. Microsoft also plans a Vista Starter edition that will be sold only on new PCs in emerging markets.

The final versions that Microsoft is announcing on Monday are similar to the ones Microsoft has long been considering, with one exception; there is not a version specifically for small businesses. Instead, Microsoft is adding a number of small business features, including advanced backup and additional tutorials, as part of its Vista Business edition.

Microsoft is also doing away with the notion of Media Center and Tablet PC as distinct flavors of the operating system, as was the case with Windows XP. With Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate, consumers will be able to buy a machine that has both Media Center and Tablet PC capabilities. Tablet PC functions will also be included in Vista Business and Vista Enterprise.

With Windows XP, Goffe said, people "really have to compromise."

"Either I get all the great media experience or I get all of the mobility features," he said. "What if I want a great home experience and a great business experience?"

Goffe said that Windows Vista Ultimate is Microsoft's answer to that question. "More and more customers are using the same PC at work and at home, particularly small businesses," he said. "We are delivering an offering that brings everything together." Ultimate combines features from the Enterprise and Premium versions.

Another of the new packages for Microsoft is Windows Vista Enterprise, which is limited to customers that have a Software Assurance contract or an Enterprise Agreement licensing plan and adds several features that won't be in the standard business version.

It will include two features designed to help with compatibility issues. This means a new subsystem that can run Unix Applications and Virtual PC express and a limited version of Microsoft's emulation software that will allow Vista enterprise users to run an older version of Windows as a virtual machine. Vista Enterprise will also have built-in support for BitLocker, an encryption feature that prevents others from accessing data if a PC is lost or stolen. BitLocker is also available in Vista Ultimate, which includes all of the features of Vista Business and Vista Home Premium.

Microsoft has been planning for some time to offer higher-end versions of its OS with Vista. CEO Steve Ballmer first noted that an Enterprise version was coming at a financial analysts' meeting last summer. Microsoft had also long hinted that with Vista, customers would be able to buy a machine that had both Tablet and Media Center features.

On the consumer side, the Home Basic version will have most of the searching and security features, but won't be able to do the advanced "Glass" graphics effects that are part of Vista's Aero user interface. The basic version, which is aimed at low-end PCs and very price-conscious buyers, also won't have the same music and media-center abilities of Home Premium.

Vista Starter is similar to the starter edition of Windows XP. Like its predecessor, Vista Starter will be sold only on new PCs and in emerging markets. XP Starter was limited to three applications running simultaneously, each with no more than three simultaneously open windows. Goffe said Vista Starter will have similar limitations.

There were also six versions of Windows XP, although four of those came well after the initial launch of XP in 2001. On top of the initial Home and Professional editions, Microsoft later added a 64-bit version of XP Pro and Windows XP Starter Edition, as well as the Tablet PC and Media Center editions.

Directions on Microsoft analyst Michael Cherry said that six versions of Vista is too many.

"I could see two versions," he said. "I could see business and a consumer version. Businesses might not want all of the entertainment features on the desktop."

Microsoft did not disclose pricing for Vista, although Goffe said Vista Business will be priced similar to XP Professional, while Vista Home Basic will have a price tag similar to Windows XP home. Vista Ultimate will be the highest priced of the products.

Pricing has been particularly important when it comes to user adoption of new features. Media Center Edition, for example, was a tiny niche product when it cost more than Windows XP Professional. However, a couple of price drops have made it popular in a broad range of consumer machines.

Because of the European Union mandate, Microsoft will also offer two flavors of Vista that have Windows Media Player removed: "Windows Vista Home Basic N" and "Windows Vista Business N."

All the flavors of Vista will be able to run in either 32-bit or 64-bit mode, with the exception of Starter, which will be 32-bit only.

Goffe said the goal with Vista was to have multiple versions to meet varying types of users. "We've really tried to take into account those different needs."

Cherry disagreed with that approach, saying that more versions makes it difficult for both consumers to figure out what they need and difficult for PC makers and retailers to educate people about all of the differences.

"What I have to contrast it with is Apple," said Cherry. "They only have one version of OS X."

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