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Windows Vista Flip 3D view of programs.

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Windows Vista

Multiple versions cloud upgrade decision

Last Updated December 11, 2006

Microsoft Corp.'s Vista is the first major revision of its Windows operating system in five years, and besides deciding whether to upgrade, people will also face the decision of what flavour of the software to upgrade to.

"I don't have a computer that is capable of running it."

— Analyst Michael Cherry on Vista's hardware demands.

Vista comes in an array of versions aimed at different types of businesses and home users, and it requires powerful hardware to take advantage of its new features.

On the surface, the latest offering by the world's largest software maker updates the operating system with a redesigned graphical user interface, a new look that is touted as being cleaner and easier to use. Under the hood, Microsoft has also been tinkering to make the latest version of Windows more secure and reliable.

In all, there are five versions of the software. One of the most apparent changes in Vista is the new "Aero" visual design to the software, whose key features include windows with transparency so that people can see a number of open applications simultaneously, and a three-dimensional view of "stacked" windows that lets users flip through open programs quickly. The basic version of Vista does not include the so-called Flip 3D view.

"I think they've done a good job," Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, told CBC News Online. "It adds value to organizations that use it."

But while the software was unveiled commercially on Nov. 30, most of the computers that use Windows today — as many as 90 per cent of PCs in the world, by some estimates — won't make a jump to the new software in the immediate future. That's partly because only the business versions of Vista were included in the initial launch — the consumer versions are set to launch on Jan. 30, 2007 — and businesses are traditionally cautious when it comes to updating their computer systems. Many adopt a wait-and-see approach to make sure software is rock solid before they bet their business operations on it.

In addition to the scaled rollout, another reason people may not be able to use Vista is that most of the computers running on desktops today are simply incapable of supporting the technical demands of the software.

"I don't have a computer that is capable of running it," Cherry said, although his machine is only about a year old.

That's a problem most companies and individuals face, he explained. "It [Vista] has significant hardware requirements," ranging from the amount of memory and processing power it needs to the heavy demands it puts on a computer's video system.

With Microsoft releasing the operating system at the end of the budget year for many companies, Cherry said most firms will wait until January before they even consider evaluating the potential impact of the software on their businesses, which will take at least three to six months. As a result, he expects it will be a least a year before Vista starts to take root in the corporate world.

Despite these concerns, Cherry said his assessment so far is that most companies would likely find it worthwhile to look into the capabilities the software offers. "Deciding to deploy Vista requires a valuation assessment," Cherry said. "It's worth investing in evaluating the software and seeing if it makes sense for you."

Vista Enterprise

Microsoft released the two business versions of Vista on Nov. 30, dubbed Windows Vista Business and Windows Vista Enterprise. Both are available to the company's volume licence holders, organizations that have contracts for Microsoft's operating system.

The business versions do not include the entertainment media management features that are included in the consumer versions, Microsoft Canada vice-president Greg Barber told CBC News Online.

Vista Enterprise is designed for large-scale global companies with vast and varied networks, and heavy-duty computing needs. As a result, a key aspect of Vista Enterprise involves new security capabilities.

Excel 2007 running on Vista.

The software can store data in an encrypted format through the built-in Windows BitLocker utility to help prevent information from being read by unauthorized individuals, a particularly important measure if a computer is lost of stolen.

"That's a significant and powerful feature," Cherry said, noting that ever-increasing amounts of sensitive data are being stored on personal computers. "But you have to be careful with it because there's no 'undo.' It means no one can get access to your data, but if you're not careful, neither can you."

The Enterprise edition also embeds Virtual PC Express, a tool that lets older programs for Windows run on Vista by emulating previous versions of Windows. Similarly, the Enterprise version has a module that lets UNIX programs run within Vista.

Vista Enterprise also includes support for Tablet PC stylus-based touchscreen computers for handwriting recognition and desktop navigation.

Vista Business

The other corporate version of Vista, Windows Vista Business, is made for companies that range in size from small businesses to large-scale entities.

Like all of the Vista versions, it includes an enhanced search feature that provides instantaneous search results for everything stored on the computer's drives. But it is effectively a scaled-down version of Enterprise that does not include features such as the BitLocker, Virtual PC or the UNIX capabilities.

Some of the most important changes to the latest version of Windows aren't readily visible to users and won't become apparent until software developed specifically for Vista starts to appear, Cherry said.

"There are some significant changes to the plumbing," Cherry added. "But until software developers start building applications that take advantage of that, we won't really see what Vista can do."

Consumer versions

By the time the consumer versions of Vista launch Jan. 30, hardware manufacturers are expected to be shipping computers designed specifically to take advantage of the features and architecture of the new operating system. The consumer versions of Vista come in Home Basic, Home Premium and Ultimate editions.

Microsoft Media Center.

Home Basic, as the name implies, is for people who use their computer for basic tasks such as surfing the internet, e-mail and chat, and simple office tasks such as writing and editing documents. It also stresses security with enhanced parental controls.

Home Premium is aimed at people who use their computers for more processor-intensive tasks, including multimedia and entertainment functions such as editing photos and video, watching television and movies, and playing computer games and music. It incorporates the Windows Media Center functions from Windows XP as a kind of dashboard that integrates the entertainment functions and connectivity to other PCs, including the ability to connect to Microsoft's Xbox line of video game consoles. The Premium edition also supports Tablet PC functions.

Windows Vista Ultimate combines all of the features of both the consumer and business versions of the new operating system.

All versions of the software will be available for computers that run on newer 64-bit computer chips, as well as 32-bit systems prevalent today.

There will also be a basic, lower-technology Starter version of Vista available for distribution in the developing world.

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