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Microsoft has finally revealed the much anticipated details of its program to let customers who buy a PC that is Windows Vista capable over the holiday season upgrade to the new operating system.

Microsoft officials have said they are on track for a release of Vista to volume license business customers in November, and to consumers in January 2007.

The new initiative, known as the Express Upgrade to Windows Vista and Microsoft Office Technology Guarantee program, will be in effect from October 26, 2006 to March 15, 2007 and will be managed in two different ways: by PC manufacturers where the operating system is preloaded, and by Microsoft from system builders.

Microsoft has decided to let OEMs like Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, Sony and Lenovo decide individually how they want to roll out the upgrade program to Vista for those customers who buy their hardware with Windows XP preinstalled during this time, Kevin Kutz, a director in Microsoft’s Windows Client group, told eWEEK.

What is the business case for upgrading to Vista? Click here to read more.

“We set this program up for our OEM partners to manage, price and customize what they feel is the best offer for their customers. They are taking care of how they inform their customers about the offer and how they plan to fulfill it,” Kutz said, acknowledging that this could mean that the upgrade offerings from the different vendors may differ.

With regard to the smaller PC makers, known as system builders, Microsoft will provide customers with Windows Vista upgrade discount coupons when they buy a qualifying Vista Capable PC.

While the offer will vary by region, the plan for the United States is that upgrades for PCs bought from system builders from Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 to Windows Vista Home Premium will be offered for the cost of shipping and handling, as will upgrades from Windows XP Professional, Windows Tablet PC Edition, and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition to Windows Vista Business and Windows Vista Business 64.

To read more about what’s inside the six Windows Vista releases, click here.

But upgrades from Windows XP Home Edition to Windows Vista Home Basic, and from Windows XP Home to Windows Vista Home Premium, will be offered at a 50 percent discount, which translates into $49 and $79 respectively, before shipping and handling, which is estimated to cost about $10.

Microsoft is also going to let customers who buy PCs pre-installed with Microsoft Office 2003 upgrade to the comparable editions of the 2007 Microsoft Office release for the cost of shipping and handling.

Microsoft is recommending that people who are considering buying Windows Vista Capable PCs during the holiday season consider those machines that are designated Premium Ready and which come with Windows XP Professional, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition or Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 preinstalled.

Next Page: Building customer confidence.

“Machines that are designated as Premium Ready can deliver the core Windows Vista experiences, plus features such as the Windows Aero user experience, and Media Center,” Kutz said, noting that those customers who had bought new hardware before this program should go to the Microsoft Web site and search under Windows Upgrade Advisor for more information about how well their hardware will work with Vista.

Analyst firm Gartner has said Vista will run on just about any PC available today, but it will only show its true colors on about half of them. Click here to read more.

Microsoft also wanted to ensure that customers could be confident in the program and had solicited a lot of input from consumers, businesses, customers and partners into these programs, and had also ensured that a seamless upgrade path had been built into Vista.

He declined to comment on what Microsoft’s sales projections were for the holiday season or early next year.

Tiffany Smith, the public relations manager for HP’s personal systems group, told eWEEK that North American consumers who buy a new HP Pavilion or Compaq Presario desktop or notebook PC, or HP Digital Entertainment Center, with a qualifying Windows XP operating system that is designated “Windows Vista Capable” between October 26, 2006 and March 15, 2007 will be eligible for a free upgrade to the Windows Vista operating system when it becomes available in early 2007.

Click here to read more about how HP overtook Dell as the world’s top PC vendor in the third quarter.

Shipping and handling costs may also apply, depending on individual retailer requirements, she said, adding that the free, qualifying, equivalent upgrade paths in North America include Windows XP Home to Windows Vista Home Basic, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 to Windows Vista Home Premium, and Windows XP Professional to Windows Vista Business.

“In North America, approximately 98 percent of HP consumer PCs are Microsoft Windows Vista Capable—direct customers can still custom configure a with 256MB of memory, so that’s why we say 98 percent—and more than 85 percent are Windows Vista Premium Ready,” Smith said.

Customers will also have to visit HP’s Web site to request their upgrade and for complete instructions on how to take advantage of this upgrade offer by no later than March 31, 2007. Proof of purchase will be required.

What is the real compatibility picture for Windows Vista? Click here to read more.

There will also be ordering instructions in the box of new Windows Vista Capable consumer PCs shipped from HP to its partners and customers, beginning October 26, 2006, Smith said.

“HP also plans to have Windows Vista-compatible and/or pre-loaded PCs, printers, scanners and digital cameras, as well as services, for both consumers and business users, all available when Vista launches,” she said, adding that HP will also offer Windows Vista-compatible drivers for specific models of HP PCs, printers, scanners and digital cameras in time for the Windows Vista general availability launch.

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