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Microsoft is making it easier for customers to buy, upgrade and license multiple copies of Windows Vista online.

The Redmond, Wash. software maker will unveil three new programs on Jan. 18 designed to give users additional flexibility in the ways they can go online to get Vista, which will be widely available on Jan. 30.

The first program, Windows Anytime Upgrade, lets customers in North America, Japan and Europe who already have a version of Vista installed on their PC upgrade to a premium version of the product at a significant discount, Bill Manion, the director of marketing for consumer and small business on the Windows client team, told eWEEK.

The Windows Anytime Upgrade option is included in the Vista Start menu, which customers can use to buy and download a digital key for the premium edition of Vista that they want to use.

They then insert the Vista DVD that came with their PC or retail purchase to complete the upgrade process.

So, say a customer with a low-price PC that has Vista Home Basic installed wants the additional features and functionality available in Vista Home Premium. Under the Windows Anytime Upgrade program, they could buy this upgrade for $79—about half of the $159 retail cost for the same boxed upgrade software.

Read more here about why there is no enterprise rush to Microsoft’s newest products.

Another example would be users who have the Vista Business installed but want the Bitlocker technology that will allow them to secure their entire hard drive and which is included in Vista Ultimate. This upgrade would cost $139 versus the retail cost of $259 for the retail boxed upgrade version, Manion said.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure that customers clearly understand at the time they make their PC or software purchase, what the right version is for them. But there are many situations where customer needs evolve and this program is designed to address that and is the first such model,” he said.

According to Manion, the suggested retail prices to upgrade online to more premium editions of Windows Vista are $79 from Home Basic to Home Premium; $199 from Home Basic to Ultimate; $159 from Home Premium to Ultimate; and $139 from Business to Ultimate.

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

Selected OEMs and retail partners will also be able to offer Windows Anytime Upgrade as online merchants, via a new e-commerce infrastructure developed by Microsoft, Manion said.

“OEM partners can act as referral partners, where they are the manufacturer of record and get a payment based on the upgrade, while retailers and OEMs can both be merchants of record and the entity with whom the customer transacts,” he said.

The second program, known as the Windows Vista Family Discount and which will be available in the United States and Canada from Jan. 30 through June 30 of 2007, lets customers upgrade additional home PCs to Windows Vista Home Premium.

This promotion is targeted at those who Microsoft refers to as its “most super-engaged customers” in North America who have a high hardware and software spend and multiple PCs in their household.

If they have bought a retail copy of Windows Vista Ultimate, they can buy two additional licenses for the Vista Home Premium Upgrade product at $49.99 each, a discount of more than 60 percent of the estimated retail price of $159 for the upgrade software, Manion said.

But, before the order can be completed online, customers will have to enter a valid Vista Ultimate key from their retail boxed product.

If the promotion is successful in North America, Microsoft could roll it out to other geographies, he said.

Under the third program Microsoft will, for the first time, make Windows Vista and the 2007 Microsoft Office release available for direct download via Windows Marketplace, an online destination for buying software that runs on Windows.

Microsoft relaunched Windows Marketplace on August 29, 2006 and the site has reported strong traffic growth, with some 8 million unique visitors in Dec. 2006 alone and a return rate of more than 18 percent within 30 days, Manion said.

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

“We think the timing is now right for us to make Windows Vista and Office 2007 System products available on Windows Marketplace for the first time and via secure digital locker download technology,” he said.

Digital locker securely stores purchased software and license keys, resumes downloads if they are interrupted, and manages the overall installation process.

Since the relaunch, Microsoft has also gained experience with the download of very large files by consumers, mostly multi-gigabyte gaming downloads, and the digital locker download experience is secure and easy for the consumer, the company said.

“Also, analyst firm IDC is predicting a 34 percent annual growth rate in electronically downloadable software through 2009, while Gartner is predicting that 80 percent of all consumer software will be delivered electronically by 2008,” Manion said.

From Jan. 30, 2007 onwards, Microsoft and some of its retail partners, will offer 32-bit and 64-bit English upgrade editions of Windows Vista Business, Windows Vista Home Basic, Windows Vista Home Premium, Windows Vista Ultimate, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, and Microsoft Office Professional 2007 on the site.

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