'Surprised' Microsoft reacts to Windows 7 upgrade snag

Offers customers option to download disk image after error stymies upgrade

Microsoft executives yesterday acknowledged that they were surprised by the snafu that prevented some college students from upgrading their Vista PCs to Windows 7, but they said the company has taken steps to remedy the problem.

"I would say that the way that customers were taking advantage of the student offer was somewhat of a surprise," said Ben Bennett, director of Microsoft's Windows consumer global support group. "We didn't think there would be a large demand for upgrades from 32-bit to 64-bit."

The problem, which Bennett confirmed has been one of the leading issues Microsoft's support staff has faced since Windows 7's launch last Thursday, popped up when students tried to upgrade a 32-bit version of Vista to a 64-bit edition of the new operating system. The copy of Windows 7 they had downloaded from Minneapolis-based Digital River -- which fulfills download orders for Microsoft's $29.99 Windows 7 upgrade offer available to students -- stalled with an error message when users tried to upgrade.

Microsoft does not support an "in-place" upgrade from 32- to 64-bit, or vice versa, on any edition of Windows 7. In a message posted to the company's support forum last weekend, a Microsoft support engineer said that the error, which appeared when the downloaded .exe file would not "unpack," was part of a "by design" process to block impossible upgrades.

Monday, Bennett defended Microsoft's decision to offer only the packed .exe file to students but said that the company would soon add the option to download an .iso file, as it does for customers ordering a Windows 7 download from its own online store.

"In the Windows ecosystem, there are hundreds of possible configurations, and we tuned [the discount] to students who were updating to 32-bit Windows 7," Bennett said, adding that Microsoft believed that path was the one that the majority of students would take. "We think hard about how our customers are going to take advantage of our offers, but we never get it exactly right," Bennett admitted.

Microsoft plans to tweak the student discount to account for users who want to migrate from 32-bit Vista to 64-bit Windows 7. "We're obviously seeing people who want to upgrade to 64-bit," said Bennett. "That's good feedback, so let's respond."

Bennett said Microsoft and Digital River would offer the option of downloading an .iso file, which customers can then burn to a DVD or copy to a USB flash drive for conducting a "clean" upgrade, the only type of upgrade possible from 32- to 64-bit. A clean upgrade, also the only one allowed for Windows XP users, requires users to back up data and settings, install Windows 7, then restore the data and settings before finally reinstalling all applications.

Microsoft added the .iso option late Monday, according to a message posted on the support thread dedicated to the problem.

"For those customers of the Student Offer who wish to install the 64-bit version of Windows 7, but are currently running a 32-bit operating system, there is now an optional downloadable ISO file of Windows 7 64-bit to allow for install," a support engineer identified only as "Michael" wrote around 9:30 p.m. Pacific.

Customers who have already bought the 64-bit version should contact Digital River via an online form and include "64-bit Windows 7 Solution" in the first line of the request description.

"In hindsight, we think we responded fairly quickly to the problem," Bennett contended. Microsoft has contacted, or is in the process of contacting, customers affected by the problem and has offered them an .iso version they can burn to DVD. Microsoft will also modify the student offer to make it clearer which version users should download.

The student offer snafu has been one of the most heavily trafficked topics on Microsoft's support forums. Over the weekend, Microsoft seemed to put the blame on users who mistakenly downloaded the 64-bit version of the upgrade. Previously, users had raged at both Microsoft and Digital River, first for not providing enough information, then for not accepting responsibility. Several said that they had reported Digital River to the Better Business Bureau.

Paul Aaron, a senior group manager for Windows supportability, said he understood users' anger. "Customers are frustrated with issues that they're having, but the longer they wait, the more they get frustrated," he said. "Today, we're light-years faster than we were when Vista launched. But we need to respond faster."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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