Windows Vista: The 'huh?' starts now

Vista versions have ordinary consumers baffled to the point of paralysis

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 workaround that enables users to install Upgrade versions of Vista without XP. It involves, essentially, installing Vista twice. Whether this work-around is considered by Microsoft as legitimate or a form of piracy -- like so much about Vista -- is still unknown.

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