Windows Vista: The 'Huh?' starts now

Microsoft is confusing everyone with its new OS; here's what you need to know

Microsoft is losing consumer operating system market share to Apple for many reasons, but most of those reasons can be oversimplified thus: Mac OS is simple, and Windows is complicated.

That's why it may be such a costly error for Microsoft to make the Vista upgrade such a confusing mess.

Until today, even experts couldn't tell you off the top of their heads the differences between each of the many Vista versions -- or even how many versions there are -- or what the basic requirements are for the Upgrade versions. Ordinary consumers are baffled to the point of paralysis.

I'm going to clear all this up in a minute. First, however, let's recall the fiasco that is the Windows Vista launch.

The Upgrade version mess

News organizations have been writing about Vista for years. In the past few months, the media addressed Upgrade versions (less expensive versions of the operating system available to users who already have a recent version of Windows), and the process Microsoft would impose for proving that you own a legitimate copy of Windows XP or 2000.

At first, some news outlets reported that Upgrade versions of Vista would require the user to enter an XP key -- the long combination of letters and numbers you need to install XP in the first place. Then, we were told you didn't need the key, but instead would be required to insert an XP disk during the Vista install. Earlier this week, some sites reported that the requirement was that XP had to be installed on your PC, and that a clean install -- installing Vista only on a reformatted disk -- would be impossible.

Don't feel bad if you still don't know which of the Upgrade proof policies above is the real one -- few outside Microsoft do. (In fact, none of them is correct.)

Microsoft created this confusion by failing to tell anyone what the proof requirement would be for using an Upgrade version of Vista.

Meanwhile, the Upgrade versions are poison:

  • Windows power users know that if you want Windows to work well over the long haul, it helps to reformat and perform a clean install once in a while. The Upgrade version requires you to install both XP/2000 and Vista every time, doubling the already massive amount of time it takes to do a reformat/reinstall.
  • The Upgrade versions require you to keep track of your original Windows XP/2000 disks. Most people have these in the form of "recovery CDs" from the PC vendor, which can include multiple disks full of junk applications.
  • Using a copy of XP or 2000 as proof for the Upgrade version of Vista invalidates the XP key, according to Vista's end-user license agreement (EULA). The EULA states, in part: "Upon upgrade, this agreement takes the place of the agreement for the software you upgraded from. After you upgrade, you may no longer use the software you upgraded from." Some bloggers and newsgroup posters have speculated that you may not be able to use that "invalidated" XP license even for a dual-boot installation with Vista. Computerworld has contacted Microsoft for clarification on this and, at press time, has not received a response. In other words, this is yet another point of confusion about Vista. [Editor's note: Computerworld will provide an update when this information becomes available.]
  • Many users have lost, or were never provided with, installation disks with their PC. Because they have XP or 2000 installed, they may decide to save money and buy an Upgrade version. If their disk later dies, or they need for whatever reason to reformat, they will then have to buy a second copy of Vista, this time, the full version. Ouch!
  • In a few years, future PCs may have hardware components not supported by XP or 2000. If a user buys the Upgrade version now, then later buys a PC and chooses to transfer the Vista license to it, the XP/2000 installation required by Upgrade versions of Vista may prove troublesome.

There is a widely published work-around that enables users to install Upgrade versions of Vista without XP. It involves, essentially, installing Vista twice. You can find the work-around in Computerworld's comprehensive Vista Upgrade Guide. Whether this work-around is considered by Microsoft as legitimate or a form of piracy -- like so much about Vista -- is still unknown.

Too many versions

When Bill Gates launched Windows 95 a dozen years ago, consumers understood what they were getting. It was a brand-new Windows, vastly superior to Windows 3.x, and came in exactly one version. PC users could just go to the store and buy it, take it home and install it, and they didn't need a doctorate to figure out how to do all this.

Fast forward to this week. Windows Vista launched with 10 -- count 'em, 10 -- versions. Instead of giving us a simple new upgrade path to the future, they instead gave us a homework assignment. Here are the versions:

  1. Windows Vista Starter Edition
  2. Windows Vista Home Basic
  3. Windows Vista Home Basic Upgrade
  4. Windows Vista Home Premium
  5. Windows Vista Home Premium Upgrade
  6. Windows Vista Business
  7. Windows Vista Business Upgrade
  8. Windows Vista Ultimate
  9. Windows Vista Ultimate Upgrade
  10. Windows Vista Enterprise Edition

Faced with this list, consumers are scratching their heads and asking: Which one should I buy? What's the difference? Why should I bother?

What you need to know

What is the proof requirement for Upgrade versions of Vista? XP or 2000 needs to be installed. Regarding whether or not a "clean" installation is possible, the answer is a resounding maybe -- it's not always up to you. Vista requires a clean install in some cases, depending on which Upgrade version of Vista you're installing, and which version of Windows you're upgrading from (Again, see our Upgrade Guide for specifics).

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Don't buy Vista yet. But if you really must, consider only two of the 10 versions: Nontechnical consumers should buy the full version of Windows Vista Home Premium, and power users should buy the full version of Windows Vista Ultimate.

(Windows Vista Starter Edition is for Third World countries. The Enterprise Edition is for big companies. The Business Edition doesn't have any of the cool multimedia stuff you want from Vista. Home Basic versions are crippled. The Upgrade versions are poison.)

Here's what you need to know about actually performing the installation of Windows Vista in Hands On: The Essential Vista Upgrade Guide.

It's obvious that Microsoft decided to extract maximum cash from consumers by micro-segmenting the market and trying to provide a different version for each. But they may end up with the opposite result. All this confusion over versions and upgrade policies will motivate unknown millions of consumers to simply stick with Windows XP or move to a Mac.

When you consider how important it is to Microsoft for Windows Vista to feel like a simple upgrade, and you consider how unnecessarily confusing and complex they have made the move to Vista, you can only respond with one word:


Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at or his blog:

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