Report: Microsoft relaxes Windows downgrade rules

Microsoft Corp. has relaxed its "downgrade" rules and will let computer makers continue to sell PCs preinstalled with the aged Windows XP for as long as six months after it launches Windows 7, according to a report published Wednesday.

The information obtained by, a Malaysian Web site that last weekend leaked Microsoft's plans to offer free or discounted upgrades to Windows 7, seems to confirm other reports that Hewlett-Packard Co. had been given the green light to sell new PCs with XP Professional through April 2010.

Yesterday, TechARP spelled out the new options Microsoft will offer computer makers such as HP and Dell Inc.

For six months after Windows 7's official launch, a date Microsoft calls "general availability," Microsoft will let OEMs sell new PCs equipped with Windows XP Professional and market them as such directly to customers or through their channel partners. Those machines must include physical media for Vista Business or Vista Ultimate, the two editions that provide downgrade rights.

"Downgrade" describes the Windows licensing rights that let users -- or, in their stead, computer manufacturers -- replace the current operating system with an older edition without having to pay for another license. Those XP Professional PCs must be advertised as such, TechARP said, noting a number of Microsoft requirements. "OEMs may market this option [but] advertising must primarily and prominently feature the Windows operating system version that is preinstalled on the system. For example, 'Microsoft Windows XP Professional (available through downgrade rights from Windows Vista Business)' would meet this requirement," Microsoft has told computer makers.

But even though they will include a copy of Vista in the box, these new XP computers may not sport the Windows Vista logo, Microsoft warned OEMs.

That is a twist on current practice, since Microsoft now requires computer manufacturers to advertise PCs as running Vista Business or Vista Ultimate, but then lets them factory-install XP Professional in place of Vista at the customer's request. With the exception of netbooks, computer makers have not been allowed to sell PCs as XP systems since June 2008.

In the same memorandum obtained by TechARP, Microsoft also detailed the downgrade rights that it will build into Windows 7, the operating system now working its way through development and testing. According to TechARP, only the two most-expensive editions of Windows 7 -- Professional and Ultimate -- will include downgrade rights. That's not surprising; Microsoft limited downgrades from Vista to XP to the two most expensive versions of the former as well.

Users will be able to downgrade a Windows 7 PC to the corresponding version of Vista -- Business or Ultimate -- or to Windows XP Professional, said TechARP. Computer makers will be able to do the same for customers at their request, just as they do now for Vista PC buyers.

Microsoft has confirmed that Windows 7 will come with downgrade rights to either Vista or XP. "This is not the first time that Microsoft has offered downgrade rights to a version other than its immediate predecessor," a spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

All these new downgrade options, both for Vista and Windows 7, will expire six months after the general availability of Windows 7. In the section that detailed Windows 7's downgrade rights, TechARP said that Microsoft will later change the rules to allow downgrades to Vista, not to XP.

Although Microsoft has historically set time limits on downgrades after a new operating system's launch, in the case of Windows XP it extended the deadline several times. Most recently, it told OEMs that they can continue to obtain XP media -- a critical component of the downgrade option -- through July 2009.

If TechARP's information is accurate, Microsoft will have to push out even further the XP media availability date. The Microsoft spokeswoman hinted as much. When asked if there would be a new cut-off date for XP media availability, and if so, what that date would be, she said, "We do not have a hard date at this time."

Other bits from both the leaked HP memo and TechARP's information may provide a clue to the expected release date of Windows 7. The former said that XP downgrades would be allowed through April 30, 2010, while the latter claimed that Microsoft would allow downgrades for six months after Windows 7 hits the street. Putting the two together points toward a late-October 2009 launch for the new operating system.

If true, Windows 7 might be released at about the same time of year as Windows XP. That operating system officially launched Oct. 25, 2001.

TechARP also noted that while Microsoft has set April 14 as the end of mainstream support for Windows XP, the company is reconsidering that date. "Microsoft is currently evaluating feedback from OEMs and end users and will provide follow-up communication regarding this evaluation by the first week of April," the site claimed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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