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.

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