Microsoft has just released beta 2 of Windows Vista for developers, reviewers and corporate customers. This latest release shows just how far Microsoft is prepared to go in order to address the problems of its existing operating system, Windows XP.

Windows XP was the result of years of effort as Microsoft struggled to bring together its consumer, desktop and business operating systems together. Windows XP has struggled to meet the different demands of the platforms – desktop (home and business), laptop and media centre – that it is now deployed on.

Windows Vista has been completely overhauled to address many of those problems. It has a new Graphical User Interface (GUI) that will change depending on the amount of system and graphics card memory present in the computer. Microsoft is talking about Vista being the next generation of the User Interface and, for once, it is not blowing smoke. The big jump from DOS to Windows and the changes from Windows to Windows 95 are equalled if not eclipsed by the move to Windows Vista.

The changes are much more than cosmetic, however. There is a whole new security subsystem, the first version of a new disk filesystem, built-in search tools to easily locate data on the local hard disk and the corporate network, a new version of Internet Explorer which Microsoft promises is more secure than any previous version and a lot of other features besides these.

From now until the launch of Windows Vista we will be going through all the features, showing how they work and talking about what they mean for the enterprise.

Which version?
Microsoft has seemingly gone version happy with Windows Vista. Not only are there six different versions of Vista but five of them come as both 32-bit and 64-bit. For most businesses, large and small, there are three key versions, Vista Enterprise, Vista Business and Vista Ultimate.

Vista Enterprise is a superset of Vista Business and will only be available to customers on Software Assurance (SA). This is an important move, not only for Microsoft in creating a forward looking revenue scheme but also for existing customers. Under the terms of SA, customers are entitled to all updates and new versions of any covered product, free of charge.

As Windows Vista is a replacement for Windows XP, any Windows XP installations covered by SA should be able to migrate without charge to Vista. However, when this question was recently posed to Microsoft employees it has been met by “we’ll come back to you.” More importantly, none of them were prepared to commit to what version of Windows Vista you would be able to migrate into – Vista Enterprise or Vista Business. At TechEd USA in three weeks, Microsoft should be addressing this question publicly. If it doesn’t there could be a lot of customers questioning why they agreed to the SA program.

When Microsoft first announced Vista Enterprise and Vista Business, it differentiated them with a small set of features. Vista Enterprise will feature the BitLocker Drive Encryption, support for simultaneous installation of multiple languages, Virtual PC Express and a subsystem for UNIX-based applications.

The third version that enterprises are likely to see will come, almost certainly, through high spec laptops and on very high spec home computers. Vista Ultimate is designed to be a superset of features found in the two Vista Home products (Basic and Premium) and the Vista Enterprise version.

The two versions of Vista Home and the OEM-only Vista Starter which is designed to be a heavily cut down version for developing countries should have limited impact on support teams.

Microsoft is targeting Vista Enterprise at its largest customers and sees Vista Business as the general purpose operating system for all companies, irrespective of size. It hasn’t really identified how it sees Vista Ultimate being deployed, which makes the expected balance of versions inside organisations unclear. Pricing for both new and upgrade installations is yet to be formally announced.

Despite targeting its largest customers with Vista Enterprise, Microsoft has not made it available to the either the general beta programme or to those who are members of the Microsoft Developer Network programme. For those interested in seeing what the difference is between Vista Enterprise and Vista Business, they can install Vista Ultimate which is available.

Requirements
When Microsoft first started to talk about and show early versions of Windows Vista, there was a real concern over the hardware requirements. One of the biggest problems here is the new GUI, Windows Aero. This is a 3D environment which, once you get used to it, can improve your use of the operating system. Unfortunately, a significant number of machines will be unable to run Aero without replacing the graphics card.

This isn’t as big a deal as it might seem. While Aero does have some useful features, it is not an essential requirement in order to gain substantially from Windows Vista. The new operating system is much more aware of hardware than previous versions of Windows. For those using standard 32-bit processors, the limitations will be around the maximum memory that can supported - 4GB.

Users with dual core computers, such as laptops equipped with either AMD 64 or Intel Centrino Duo or workstations will find that Vista takes full advantage of both cores. This will be of particular advantage to those using large spreadsheets, web design or graphics manipulation.

If the processor is a 64-bit processor, the memory limitations will be driven by the version of Windows Vista. The Business, Enterprise and Ultimate versions will all address up to 128GB of RAM. This is more than any desktop, laptop or workstation in general distribution today. For developers, power users and designers, however, this is a massive boost that will dramatically improve the performance of their applications.

Coming Up
In the next article we will look closely at the new security features inside Vista including BitLocker, User Account Control and Windows Defender.