Six versions of Windows Vista, as Microsoft subdivides home, business tiers

Redmond (WA) - There will indeed be six versions of Windows Vista, Microsoft announced this morning, confirming a discovery made by Microsoft Watch a week and a half ago when marketing information was inadvertently posted to Microsoft's corporate Web site.

As the prematurely posted information indicated, there will be two principal versions of the client operating system for home users, and two principal versions for business users. But some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent: The product line will be capped off by a new low-cost Starter edition at the bottom tier and an Ultimate edition at the top tier, which will bundle together all features built into the upper-level home and professional classes.

While Windows Media Player is likely to be a part of all North American Windows versions, with the possible exception of Starter, the Vista Home Premium edition will incorporate Windows Media Center functionality, which promises "all-in-one home entertainment center" features including connectivity to Xbox game consoles. Also incorporated will be Tablet PC functionality, which could mean that both Media Center and Tablet PC versions of Windows will no longer be considered separate tiers - Microsoft has yet to confirm this. DVD burning functionality will also be built in.

Also, confirming speculation elsewhere in the past few weeks, neither the Vista Home Basic nor the Vista Starter edition appear to include the "Aero" look and feel, with liberal use of translucency and alpha blending to make it seem your computing world is comprised of panes of glass. Whether users of those editions will see the "Luna" look and feel supplied presently with Windows XP, or the relatively dull and drab Windows 95 environment, is unclear. Vista Basic will apparently include the Sidebar feature, however, whose earliest beta versions appeared at first to be completely dependent on the Aero style.

The two new professional editions, Vista Business and Vista Enterprise, will both contain Aero, as well as the new localized search and retrieval feature that developed out of the somewhat repurposed WinFS project. Tablet PC functionality will also now be built into both versions. Meanwhile, the Enterprise edition will offer a few surprises, including built-in Virtual PC Express subsystems that will enable users to run software intended for older environments as well as, for the very first time, UNIX applications. (Now we know what that license Microsoft purchased from SCO was all about.) Also, the Enterprise edition will feature what Microsoft is now calling BitLocker drive encryption, which is the company's take on the concept of PGPdisk: It enables the entire image of a hard drive's contents to be encrypted, and served to Windows via a special cryptography driver.

Missing from today's press release is some very important information, including suggested retail prices, but also including basic computer functionality requirements. Sources have told TG Daily that Vista will premiere the concept of an enumerated performance rank, currently called Windows System Performance Rating (WSPR), which buyers will be able to use to match the performance of new computers in the market with new software, using numbers from "1" through "5." With six tiers of Vista available simultaneously, it's easy to imagine the Ultimate Edition being given a "5" rating, and Starter Edition a "1." But for now, Microsoft isn't saying exactly what level of computer performance its Vista versions will require, although there has been some indication from sources that middle tiers of the new system will request at least a 3 GHz single-core processor, or a multi-core CPU capable of similar performance.

Microsoft is sticking to its guns that all Vista versions will be available in the second half of 2006. Its new server editions, which still go by the beta moniker "Longhorn," continue to wait for 2007.