Microsoft is slowly moving forward with Windows Vista, the official name of the next Windows operating system. The release date is impossible to guess; beta testing is in the very early stages and the feature set is still in flux. We’ll have a better idea in a year of what to expect.

Apparently the company has settled on the different product editions that will hit the market – and the rumors describe an overly complex bunch of choices that seem guaranteed to cause confusion.

Currently Microsoft sells Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Professional Edition, plus special versions for specific hardware – x64 processors, tablet PCs, and Windows XP Media Center Edition for living room computers. Home and Professional are the only versions most of you have ever seen (and almost no one other than IT professionals knows the differences even between those two).

Windows Vista will be shipped in seven different editions, and the distinctions are less focused on hardware and more on functions. That means there will potentially be more boxes on the store shelves and more choices on the Dell configuration page for you to sort out.

I’ll list the names, but I can’t do justice to the complex distinctions between them. Paul Thurrott has a good breakdown here. Imagine standing at CompUSA, or setting up your Dell order, and trying to make the right choice from this list:

  • Windows Vista Starter Edition
  • Windows Vista Home Basic Edition
  • Windows Vista Home Premium Edition
  • Windows Vista Ultimate Edition
  • Windows Vista Small Business Edition
  • Windows Vista Professional Edition
  • Windows Vista Enterprise Edition

Sounds like fun, eh?