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Windows Vista editions: Know licensing terms before the operating systems upgrade

Familiarize yourself with the full line of Windows Vista editions and the Windows Anytime Upgrade feature before deciding if now is the best time to upgrade customers' operating systems.

Licensing is always a beast with which one must reckon, at least when it comes to a commercial operating system upgrade. Windows Vista licensing comes with a few new wrinkles, thanks to the increased number of editions, instant upgradability, as well product lifecycle and upgrade concerns.

Editions available for licensing

First it's important to understand the range of Vista options to present to customers. Windows Vista, at the time of its release, will be available in a few different SKUs, as follows:

  • Windows Vista Starter: This edition is a 32-bit only version of Windows aimed at emerging markets, with a very limited feature set and minimal graphical enhancements over Windows XP. Your typical customer probably will not want this edition.

  • Windows Vista Home Basic: Home Basic is the entry-level version of Vista targeted at the modest consumer who wants the newer elements of the interface, but doesn't need more advanced features like Media Center and DVD Maker. Home Basic will be available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions.

  • Windows Vista Home Premium: Home Premium builds on the Basic SKU and also adds the Aero Glass interface, tablet PC support, synchronization features and digital media applications. Home Premium is essentially at the same level as Windows XP Media Center Edition, and it will be available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions.

  • Windows Vista Business: Vista Business is the most basic business-oriented edition of the operating system, and includes the ability to participate in a domain, as well as better management and security features, like Group Policy support and encrypting file system (EFS) capabilities. Business will be available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions.

  • Windows Vista Enterprise: Vista Enterprise builds on Vista Business and adds the subsystem for Unix applications (SUA) support as well as Virtual PC Express. Vista Enterprise is available only to Microsoft volume-license customers. Enterprise will be available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions.

  • Windows Vista Ultimate: This edition contains all of the goodies in every edition, with the possible exception of Virtual PC Express, which at this point appears to be limited only to the Enterprise version.

Windows Anytime Upgrade

Microsoft introduces a novel concept with Windows Vista: A new feature called Windows Anytime Upgrade allows users to purchase online a new product key from an approved independent vendor and instantly upgrade their current edition of Windows Vista to whichever one they purchased. Users simply navigate into Control Panel, run Windows Anytime Upgrade, purchase the new key and download the license, and then insert their original Windows Vista CD or DVD to complete the upgrade. Since Microsoft will ship all of the bits for every available edition of Vista on one set of media, this anytime upgrade can, indeed, happen anytime.

Presumably such an upgrade will have a reduced price as compared to the full retail or even shrink-wrapped upgrade version of Windows Vista, but Microsoft has yet to release suggested retail prices for these upgrades. Further adding to the fog is the fact that OEMs, partners, and other independent vendors will be selling these anytime upgrade facilities exclusively, so they may mark up or undercut Microsoft's suggested prices -- it's simply too early to tell. But if the pricing pans out favorably for consumers and vendors alike this would make the decision to initially invest in any edition of Windows Vista a little easier, since one can lay out a bit of cash anytime in the future to access more features and capabilities.

To upgrade or not to upgrade

One question that pops up from time to time is how to advise customers about upgrading. Obviously those bundling the OS with new systems will find that the vast majority of consumers and small businesses will want the latest and greatest, making Vista pretty much a requirement. But what about the white-box builders compiling systems for larger businesses? As part of Microsoft's product lifecycle outline, registered system builders will still be able to obtain official licenses of Windows XP for up to 24 months after general availability of Windows Vista, which is currently slated for January 2007. In addition, volume license customers often have downgrade rights in their contracts, which allow them to run previous versions of operating systems with a license for the current version.

About the author: Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker residing in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jonathan's books include RADIUS, Learning Windows Server 2003, Hardening Windows and most recently Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual. His work is seen regularly in popular periodicals such as Windows IT Pro Magazine, SecurityFocus, PC Pro and Microsoft TechNet Magazine. He speaks around the world on topics including Windows administration, networking and security.

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