As Microsoft veers toward a mid-March 2005 Beta 1 release of its next generation operating system, codenamed Longhorn, the company is also starting to reevaluate which product editions it will ship. When Windows XP first arrived in 2001, the company had a simple product lineup, with Home and Professional Editions. Since then, however, Microsoft has confused the market with separate editions called Media Center, Tablet PC, and Starter Edition. With Longhorn, things could get even more confusing.

According to source at the software giant, Microsoft is considering greatly expanding the number of product editions with Longhorn, as it has done with Microsoft Office and Visual Studio. In addition to the editions that exist today, the company may add a Small Business Edition and an "uber" edition that combines all of the features and functionality from Home, Pro, Media Center, Tablet PC, and Small Business Editions.

Additionally, many of the product names will change. For example, today's Tablet PC Edition will likely adopt a name that is more applicable to general mobility and not specific to Tablet PC devices. Or, sources say, the Tablet PC features might simply be melded into the core OS. Microsoft would like to use more descriptive and friendly names for its Windows products and provide more overlapping functionality between the product versions. It's all up in the air, though the company expects to finalize the product types and distinctions by Q2 2005.

What's not up in the air, however, is Longhorn's ship date. The company is now committed internally to shipping Longhorn in May 2006. To meet this date, Microsoft has scheduled a March 16, 2005 Beta 1 release and a Q3 2005 Beta 2 release that will coincide with September's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2005 event in Los Angeles. Longhorn will then experience three release candidate builds, RC0, RC1, and RC2, before shipping in May 2006. For more information about this updated timeline, and the various product versions Microsoft is now considering, please refer to my SuperSite for Windows showcase, The Road to Windows Longhorn 2005.