When I learned that Microsoft would sell an unprecedented number of Windows Vista product versions, I questioned the reasoning behind the company's decision. I felt that consumers would be confused by the myriad of options available and that the diversification of the Windows product line would cause support headaches.
Clearly, I suffer from a lack of imagination; the situation is much worse than I ever thought it could be now that Vista is widely available. Simply counting the number of Vista versions Microsoft is currently selling is futile. There's Vista Starter, Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium, Vista Business, Vista Enterprise, and Vista Ultimate. But there are also the so-called N versions of Vista Home Premium and Vista Business in the European Union (where, I believe, N stands for "no one is interested"). There are separate Upgrade and full versions of Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium (and Vista Home Premium N), Vista Business (and Vista Business N), and Vista Ultimate. And although Vista Ultimate includes both 32-bit and 64-bit media in the retail box, Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium, and Vista Business all ship in separate 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Are there separate 32-bit and 64-bit Upgrade and full versions of these products? You know, I'm not sure.
Businesses, by the way, qualify for volume licensing. There are numerous prices, and it's always cheaper if Microsoft can convince you to buy Vista right away. Volume-license customers qualify for their own versions of Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium, Vista Business, Vista Enterprise, and Vista Ultimate. Vista Enterprise has one almost assuredly useless but unique feature: You can install as many as four more copies of Vista Enterprise on virtual machines. There's just one hitch: All the copies have to be running on the same PC that's running the first Vista version you bought.
And let's talk about OEM versions for a bit. Online retailers are selling low-cost OEM versions of Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium, Vista Business, and Vista Ultimate. These products are identical to the full retail versions of Vista, but they come without documentation, retail packaging, support, and, as it turns out, the humongous price tags. Smart buyers are snapping up the OEM versions before Microsoft realizes there's a loophole allowing these products--which are legally available only to system builders--to be sold to individuals.
OEM versions aren't the only surreptitious way to get more than you paid for. According to my sources, you can purchase a retail Upgrade version of Vista and perform a pseudo-clean install, without having to have a previous version of Windows. It's a handy way to save money if you don't mind cheating a bit. I wonder if Microsoft will cut that off when Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) ships later this year. (You know ... the Vista SP1 that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer embarrassingly continues to deny is in the works.)
But wait, there's more. Consumers who purchase new PCs online can get Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium, Vista Business, or Vista Ultimate with their systems by choosing which version they want at configuration time. If you purchase an XP-based PC before March 15, you can get a free or low-cost version of Vista Home Basic or Vista Home Premium via your PC maker, depending on the version of XP you bought. And if you got stuck with a low-end Vista version for some reason, take heart: You can use Windows Anytime Upgrade to upgrade electronically from Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium, and Vista Business to better versions. Take your time: The upgrades will be available whenever you're ready.
If you buy the full retail version of Vista Ultimate, you qualify for Microsoft's Windows Vista Family Discount program, which lets you electronically purchase two additional licenses for Vista Home Premium for just $50 each. Are these full versions of Vista Home Premium, or are they Upgrade versions? No one knows yet, because Microsoft's Web site hasn't been fulfilling requests for the past 24 hours and its support center has no idea when users call. I'm sure that will get sorted out eventually.
There's more. Oh yes, there's always more, because Microsoft is being particularly inventive about taking your money this time around. If you're too lazy to actually get off your couch and drive to Best Buy, Microsoft will sell you full and Upgrade versions of Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium, Vista Business, and Vista Ultimate via its Windows Marketplace Web site. I fully expect Vista to be included in cereal boxes, given out with new car purchases, and sold by street vendors in in New York by the end of the year. Come to think of it, the latter might already be a reality.
My favorite part of this chaotic silliness is the myriad ways in which you can start from a bare PC and work up to a Vista Ultimate powerhouse. Consider this scenario: You purchased a new PC in late 2006 with XP Home Edition. Using the Vista Express Upgrade program, you receive your free copy of Vista Home Basic in early 2007 and use it to upgrade your PC. Later, you decide that you want more functionality, so you use Windows Anytime Upgrade to upgrade to Vista Home Premium. Later, you can use the same service to upgrade to Vista Ultimate. In this scenario, Microsoft got paid three times (once for XP, twice for Vista), and you probably had to upgrade your RAM and video card as well. In short, the whole PC industry benefits. My question is, once you upgrade to Vista Ultimate, do you qualify for family licensing? Of course not.
Am I forgetting something? Probably. Because if there's a single truth about the new Windows version, it's that Microsoft will stop at nothing to ensure that you get the copy of Vista you so richly deserve. How you do it, and how much money, time, and effort you expend, is completely up to you.