Microsoft clarifies Windows 7 downgrade plan

Windows 7 buyers will be able to downgrade to Windows Vista or Windows XP under certain conditions

Microsoft has clarified its downgrade rights policies for buyers of Windows 7, which the company plans to ship Oct. 22.

Windows 7 buyers will be able to downgrade to Windows Vista or XP, but the rights to do that will depend on the edition of Windows 7 they buy and the licensing type. Microsoft also set a timeline for how long the XP downgrade option will be available from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), which could represent a change in the company's licensing policy.

According to Microsoft, those who buy the Professional or Ultimate editions of Windows 7 with new PCs from OEMs will have the option to downgrade to the XP Professional edition only, provided that they buy the PCs before April 22, 2011.

A Microsoft spokesperson explained in an e-mail message June 17 that the XP downgrade option will be in effect for "PCs that ship within 18 months following the general availability of Windows 7 [namely, before April 22, 2011] or until the release of a Windows 7 service pack, whichever is sooner and if a service pack is developed."

An InfoWorld article had claimed that buyers would have just six months — until April 22, 2010 — to buy a new PC and maintain the option to downgrade to Windows XP. That article had relied on information from a Gartner analyst. Presumably, Microsoft decided to extend the time period to 18 months.

Organizations that buy after the 18-month period will not be able to downgrade from Windows 7 to XP. They will only be able to downgrade to Vista, Microsoft's current flagship OS.

It's not clear why Microsoft added the time restriction on downgrades for Windows XP. In April, when the downgrade option from Windows 7 to XP was widely discussed, a Microsoft spokesperson said the ability to skip Windows editions in a downgrade was a long-standing tradition of Microsoft's end-user agreements. No time limit was mentioned.

The rules are a little different for those who buy Windows 7 through the Microsoft Volume License Services program. If they pay extra for Microsoft's Software Assurance program, they have "full flexibility to upgrade or downgrade their PCs to older or newer versions of Windows," according to the Microsoft spokesperson.

The ability to downgrade Windows is of particular importance to organizations that need to run older, so-called legacy applications. Those organizations might use custom-built applications that run on Windows XP and might need more time before upgrading the OS — either for technical reasons, budgetary constraints or both.

XP is still the primary Windows OS choice among enterprise users. Just 10 percent of enterprises switched from XP to Vista, according to Forrester Research. Many of them delayed upgrading to Vista after hearing early reports of driver compatibility problems. Microsoft claims to have remedied most of those issues, and the company has indicated that drivers from third-party software partners are on track for the general release of Windows 7.

Windows 7 users will have another option to help them run their XP-based applications without downgrading to XP. Microsoft has added a new Windows XP Mode as an option for its Virtual PC software in Windows 7. XP Mode lets users run XP-based applications in a virtual machine inside Windows 7.

Microsoft recommends XP Mode only for small to midsize businesses. Information technology pros will have to maintain both Windows 7 and XP Service Pack 3 when running applications in XP Mode, so it adds maintenance time for systems administrators who want to use it. For larger organizations that maintain multiple PCs, the company suggests using its Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization solution. It is available as part of the Software Assurance program, which costs about $90 extra per PC.

Another limitation of XP Mode is that IT pros will have to be certain that the PC hardware can support virtualization. Chip manufacturers indicate when their processors have hardware virtualization capabilities with brand names such as Intel VT and AMD-V. Without that hardware virtualization capability, XP Mode won't work.

On the other hand, IT pros who want to use Windows 7 downgrade rights will have to keep track of which PCs have those rights.

About the Authors

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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