updated 2/14/2006 5:47:40 PM ET 2006-02-14T22:47:40

Microsoft Corp. hopes to have the new version of its Windows operating system available in time for the U.S. holiday season, spokesman Lou Gellos said, narrowing the time frame for the much-anticipated product's release.

Microsoft has long said the new system, called Vista, would be available in the second half of 2006, but Gellos said Tuesday that the company wants to have it in stores in time for holiday shoppers. He declined to give any more detailed guidance. (MSNBC.com is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

Analyst Charles Di Bona with Bernstein & Co. said that's important in part because consumers, rather than businesses, are often the first to buy a new version of Windows. He also said it will signal that Microsoft, which has often been plagued by missed deadlines, can get this product to market in time.

"If they do that, they're on schedule, so that's good," he said.

Joe Wilcox with Jupiter Research said the move also will be good news for computer makers, who can use Vista as a push to persuade shoppers to buy new PCs.

"The Dells and the HPs of the world want to have those nice, shiny new PCs to sell, and a brand new operating system would be a good start," he said.

The new version of Windows, Microsoft's first update for its flagship offering in five years, promises to give users faster, better ways to search for data such as e-mails, music, photos and video content. It also will offer security improvements, an updated look and other perks such as parental controls and a new media player.

However, it isn't going to include an even more advanced way to store and organize information, called WinFS, that was originally promised and is now slated to come later.

The release comes as the Redmond software giant is facing emerging competitors such as Google Inc., whose products threaten Microsoft both on and off the desktop. Analysts say the increasing prevalence of companies that offer free online services that used to be available most conveniently on the desktop  — such as e-mail or word processing — could eventually pose real problems for Microsoft.

Microsoft has responded by stepping up its own online offerings. But competitors are also increasingly edging their way onto the desktop itself. Yahoo Inc., Google and America Online Inc. are among the companies that have begun offering ways to search computer desktops, for example, responding to long-standing complaints that Windows' own offering was clunky.

Microsoft also must persuade consumers that it's worth it to upgrade to Vista, when plenty of users might be perfectly happy with a computer running the current version of Windows.

"The challenge for Microsoft will be trying to show consumers why Windows XP is not good enough and why they should consider Vista, and that's as much a marketing challenge as it is one about features," Wilcox said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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