Windows Vista versions unveiled

So the rumors are true: Microsoft is saying that it'll release six different editions of Windows Vista when the OS--due to show up late this year--arrives. (Actually, there will be twelve versions, since everything will be available in both 32- and 64-bit editions.)

The company will aim three versions of Windows at home users (all of the descriptions that follow are Microsoft's, not mine):

Windows Vista Home Basic: For consumers that want to simply use the PC to browse the Internet, correspond with friends and family over email or perform basic document creation and editing tasks, Windows Vista Home Basic will deliver a safer, more reliable and more productive computing environment.

Windows Vista Home Premium: Will help consumers utilize mobile or desktop PC functionality more effectively while enabling the enjoyment of new, exciting digital entertainment experiences - all with the benefit of added security and reliability. Windows Vista Home Premium includes everything in Windows Vista Home Basic, plus the Windows Vista Aero(TM) and Media Center and Tablet PC capabilities.

Windows Vista Ultimate: Windows Vista Ultimate is the edition of Windows Vista that has it all. It is the first operating system that brings together all of the consumer-oriented features available in Windows Vista Home Premium with all of the business-oriented features available in Windows Vista Business.

Two versions will cater to businesses

Windows Vista Business: For small to medium size businesses, Windows Vista Business will help keep PCs running smoothly and securely so they are less reliant on dedicated IT support. For larger organizations, Windows Vista Business will provide dramatic new infrastructure improvements that will enable IT staff to spend less time focused on day to day maintenance of PCs and more time adding strategic value to the organization.

Windows Vista Enterprise: To better address the needs of large, global organizations and those with highly complex IT infrastructures, Windows Vista Enterprise is designed to significantly lower IT costs and risk. In addition to all of the features available in Windows Vista Business, Windows Vista Enterprise is designed to provide higher levels of data protection using hardware-based encryption technology.

And one version will target particularly price-sensitive parts of the world

Windows Vista Starter: Helps users in emerging technology countries be more successful by providing an affordable, easy to learn and use computing experience. It is compatible with latest applications and devices, and more reliable and secure because it is part of the Windows Vista family of products.

My initial thoughts

Stay tuned for details. Microsoft's being pretty vague at this point about exactly what you will and won't get in each edition. And vital details like price (see below) and hardware requirements remain unknown. So any conclusions need to be vague, too.

It's interesting that Microsoft is releasing a new low-end version of Windows. Home Basic does, indeed, sound basic--it doesn't have the flashy "Aero" user interface that's a major Vista selling point. Seems like a good bet that Microsoft envisions the competition fo Home Basic as being not other versions of Vista but XP. In other words, it might appeal to folks who wouldn't otherwise upgrade. Home Basic doesn't seem to support Vista's new integrated search. On one hand, that seems pretty lame--in 2006 and beyond, adequate search tools really ought to be a standard part of every operating system. (You could argue that less sophisticated computer users need search more than advanced types do.) But there are plenty of decent free search add-ons out there, such as the Google Desktop...so if you end up with Home Basic, you'll still be able to find your stuff.

Another question about Home Basic: Will this version show up on super-cheap PCs, and if so, is that because their hardware won't be up to the challenge of running Home Premium?

Media Center and Tablet PC are about to become features, not different operating systems. There won't be separate Windows versions for living-room and tablet use; Windows Vista Business will have the Tablet stuff built in, and Vista Home Premium and Ultimate will have both Tablet and Media Center. On the tablet side, this is not a very meaningful shift, since you'll still need a notebook with a digitizer. But it's significant that the Media Center stuff will be completely mainstream. (And not a huge leap from the current situation, since an awful lot of home computers come with Media Center these days, including ones not particularly targeted at the living room.)

By building Media Center into Home Premium, Microsoft may be, among other things, girding itself for a multimedia war with Apple--a Windows PC with Home Premium may be a more living-room friendly system out of the box than a similar Mac. (Although we don't know right now how living-room friendly Macs will be by the time Vista finally ships.)

Cost remains a question mark. Microsoft isn't saying what the price points for all these variants will be. If cost was no object, a serious PC user with a decent computer would presumably want the Ultimate edition, which apparently has all the features from all the other versions. But we don't know whether Ultimate will command only a slight premium over other versions or whether it'll be a big-ticket item.

Also unknown: Which versions will show up most often as the preinstalled OS on mainstream PCs. And whether manufacturers that offer custom configurations will bother to offer every possible variant of Windows on every machine they sell--or at least all three home-oriented versions on consumer systems, and both businessy variants on corporate PCs.

One other thought on pricing--notebook vendors have sometimes told me that one of the reasons that Tablet PCs haven't caught fire is because vendors have to pay a meaningful premium to Microsoft for Windows Tablet PC over other versions, thereby increasing the price of a Tablet. If manufacturers are tending to preinstall Windows Premium, Ultimate, or Business anyhow--all of which include the Tablet features--they may be more inclined to build Tablet PCs, and those systems may sell for a bit less than they do now. (Of course, the digitizing screen is still an extra cost that manufacturers will pass on to buyers)

Got any initial thoughts of your own? Are you glad that Microsoft's going to offer lots of choices, or worried that it'll be confusing? Which version would you want, and how much would you be willing to pay for it as an upgrade?

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Harry McCracken

PC World
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