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Microsoft Unveils Windows 7 Downgrade Plan

Microsoft has clarified its downgrade rights policies for Windows 7 purchasers when that operating system becomes generally available. The company plans to ship Windows 7 on Oct. 22.

Windows 7 buyers will be able to downgrade to Windows Vista or Windows XP, but the rights to do that will depend on the edition of Windows 7 purchased, as well as the licensing type. Microsoft also set a timeline on how long the XP downgrade option will be available from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), perhaps representing a change in the company's licensing policy.

According to Microsoft, those buying 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 the PCs get purchased before April 22, 2011.

A Microsoft spokesperson explained in an e-mail on Wednesday 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 earlier claimed that buyers would have just six months -- until April 22, 2010 -- to buy a new PC and still maintain the option to downgrade to XP. That article had relied on information from a Gartner analyst. Presumably, Microsoft decided to extend the six-month time period to 18 months.

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

It's not clear why Microsoft added the time restriction on downgrades to XP. In April, when the downgrade option from Windows 7 to XP got wide discussion, a Microsoft spokesperson said that the ability to skip Windows editions in a downgrade was a longstanding tradition of Microsoft's end user agreements. No time limit was mentioned.

The rules are a little different for those buying Windows 7 through Microsoft's Windows Volume Licensing 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. These organizations may use custom-built applications running on XP and may need more time before upgrading the OS, either for technical reasons, budgetary reasons 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 enterprises dragged their heels on upgrading to Vista after hearing early reports of driver compatibility problems. Microsoft claims to have since remedied most of those issues. The company also has indicated that drivers from its third-party software partners will be on track for the Windows 7 general release.

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-medium businesses. IT pros will have to maintain both Windows 7 and XP Service Pack 3 when running applications on XP Mode, so it adds maintenance time for system administrators wanting to use it. For larger organizations maintaining multiple PCs, Redmond suggests using its Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) solution, which is available as part of Software Assurance licensing. Software Assurance 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 that the processor has hardware virtualization capabilities with brand names, such as "Intel VT" and "AMD-V." Without this hardware virtualization capability, XP Mode won't work.

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

About the Author

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

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