Microsoft will make its new Windows Vista operating system available for sale and download online, marking a new step for the software company, which has previously sold Windows only on packaged discs or pre-loaded on computers.
A relatively low number of computer users are likely to get Vista by downloading it from the Internet. But the availability indicates that Microsoft is experimenting with distribution methods for the extremely profitable franchise at the core of its business.
The download program, announced late Wednesday, will also include the Office 2007 line of software when both are released for consumers Jan. 30. At least initially, the huge downloads will be available in North America only.
Far more commonly, consumers will get Vista already installed on new PCs bought after Jan. 30. The download process is targeted at people who are running the prior operating system, Windows XP, and want to get Vista without having to buy a new PC. However, Vista imposes hardware requirements that not all Windows XP machines can meet.
For those who do buy Vista the normal way, Microsoft is launching a new program that makes it easier to upgrade from one edition of the operating system to another.
Here is how that will work. For consumers, Vista will come in four versions at different prices. Though consumers will pick one version when they buy a computer, higher versions will be embedded on the machine's hard drive or packaged on discs that come with it.
Anyone who wants to move up the chain will be able to click a new "Windows Anytime Upgrade" function, pay for the upgrade online and receive a coded license "key" that will unlock the more expensive edition.
Microsoft also plans a promotion that will let buyers of Vista Ultimate get $50 copies of Home Premium for two other PCs.
Bill Mannion, director of consumer marketing for Windows, called these three steps part of an overall effort to give more flexibility to end users.
Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, said the company likely was hoping to increase the incentives for consumers to buy costlier versions of Vista. Indeed, much of the marketing surrounding Vista will highlight features available only in higher-end versions, such as the new three-dimensional user interface and encryption functions.