Microsoft plans to drop the "Home" and "Pro" tags with the next release of Windows, code-named Longhorn, and is looking at shipping a single product that includes the features found in today's Windows XP Media Centre and Tablet PC editions.
While still mum on many Longhorn packaging details, Microsoft representatives are more willing to talk publicly about the product now that a first beta release is set to ship in the coming months and the decisions about key operating system components have been made.
For one, Microsoft has decided that the Home and Pro monikers it introduced with Windows XP to distinguish versions of the operating system meant for home and office use are not descriptive enough. There will be versions of Longhorn specifically meant for consumer and business use, but the naming will be changed.
"Having more friendly names that more accurately describe what the products are is going to be a big focus for us," says Brad Brooks, director of Windows client consumer marketing at Microsoft. "You will see very clear distinctions between what we are doing on the consumer side versus the business side."
Brooks, in an interview at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week, declined to further discuss Microsoft's plans for Longhorn naming, except to confirm that the product will be called Windows. "There are lots of thoughts, but we're not ready to talk about it," he said.
As it works on packaging for Longhorn, Microsoft is considering adding the Media Centre and Tablet PC features to the core operating system package. Today Windows XP Media Centre Edition and Windows XP Tablet PC Edition are distinct products.
Building Media Centre and Tablet PC capabilities into the basic operating system would allow for a rich and flexible user experience, Brooks said. For example, a high-end laptop could be set to function as a Media Centre PC when it is docked and as a Tablet PC when out of the docking station, he said.
A Media Centre PC is designed to be the entertainment hub of a home. It can serve media content to TVs throughout a home and includes digital video recorder capabilities. Tablet PC functionality is designed for notebook computers and lets users input data on a touch screen using a pen. A Tablet PC and Media Centre combination does not exist today.
Switching between the different modes should happen automatically, Brooks says. When the system is taken out of the docking station it should change the user interface, start managing power more efficiently and adapt the screen resolution to the mobile display without any action from the user, he says.
However, with all the functionality in the basic operating system, users would likely still have to pick what features they want their PC to support when they install the operating system, depending on how they plan to use that PC. "You answer a few questions and the operating system tailors itself," Brooks says.
A PC vendor or IT department could also customise the operating system on new PCs for the various usage models, Brooks says.
"These are some things that are driving our thinking," Brooks says.
Some of the preliminary ideas for the Longhorn client are similar to Microsoft's stated plans for the server version of Longhorn, due out in 2007. Microsoft will let customers configure the next major release of Windows Server for specific server tasks, rather than selling a host of different Windows Server Longhorn editions tailored to those tasks.
Microsoft plans to detail Longhorn packaging around the middle of this year, around July or August, Brooks says. At that time, the software maker will disclose whether it will continue to ship Media Centre and Tablet PC as separate Windows editions, or if the features will be absorbed by the core Longhorn product.
More details on Longhorn, which senior Microsoft executives have called one of the most important versions of Windows that the company has ever released, are expected at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), scheduled for late April. The final product is set to ship by the end of next year.