The wait is over. It's official. Retail store shelves are adorned with rows of stylized boxes that contain the various flavors of Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system and Office 2007 productivity suite. Vista became available at more than 39,000 retail stores in more than 70 countries on Tuesday with all the fanfare Microsoft could muster.

Indeed, Redmond is calling Vista the most significant product launch in the company's history. To mark that launch, Microsoft execs are celebrating at an event in New York City and promoting the software Relevant Products/Services as a "new era in personal computing."

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has boldly promised that Windows Vista and Microsoft Office 2007 will "transform the way people work and play" because the applications were designed, tested, and developed with the help of millions of consumers. Gates has said he is confident that the new products "squarely address the needs and aspirations of people around the globe."

Social Platform

Developers enhanced the user interface of the new platform in a quest to make it more visually exciting and easier to use than previous generations, and many industry analysts agree that the efforts are a success.

Windows Vista appears to be designed with social networking in mind. Consumers can use the applications to share digital Relevant Products/Services documents, such as photos, music, and videos, or participate in digital communities and play online games.

Indeed, Microsoft is pushing all kinds of entertainment for its consumer versions of Vista, from television to video games to music and movies. The software's e-mail, voice recording, and video capabilities are richer in Vista, the company says.

But Vista isn't just about fun and games. Microsoft is hoping the redesigned user interface will help increase productivity and ease of use when the time comes to get to work. The software also promises to improving access to information with new search tools that scour through e-mail, images, notes, or other media stored on a PC.

Software Update

Microsoft kicked off its global advertising campaigns to encourage consumers to experience the "wow" of Vista. The campaign will promote the features the new software offers, such as home entertainment and protection Relevant Products/Services from malicious Web sites.

"The photo management tools knocked our socks off," said Tony Iams, a senior analyst with Ideas International. "It's so easy to organize your photos and burn them onto a DVD." Iams also was impressed with the way Vista works in tandem with the Xbox, as well as the with the parental control utilities that aim to keep kids safe online.

The question for many consumers who are rushing out to buy Vista today, though, is whether some of the advanced features in Vista will work with existing hardware. Microsoft and many retail outlets are offering free software online to help consumers determine what version of Vista will work most effectively on existing PCs.

"The bottom line is compatibility," Iams noted. "You could try to run your programs on Vista and you may have problems. The old applications may not work the same way they used to, and you may have to buy new releases of your current software."

Vista is available as a stand-alone box of upgrade discs, and bundled as the OS powering countless new PCs. Users will have their pick of versions. Upgrading from Windows XP or Windows 2000 will cost $99 for the Home Basic version, $159 for the Home Premium, and $259 for the Ultimate version.