Microsoft to offer 'special' Windows 7 upgrade deals

Company mum on details; reliable site says no free upgrades for netbooks, Vista Basic

Microsoft on Tuesday confirmed that it will offer consumers "special deals" on an upgrade to Windows 7 if they buy a Vista-equipped PC before the launch of the new operating system.

Earlier in the day, Microsoft announced that it would start selling Windows 7 on Oct. 22, and acknowledged that it would have some kind of free or discounted upgrade offer in place before that.

But other than the name of the program -- "Windows 7 Upgrade Option" -- the company remained mum on the deal's details, including start and end dates, how much computer makers and retailers will charge for the upgrade, or even what versions of Windows Vista will be eligible.

"This program enables participating retailers and OEMs to offer a special deal to upgrade to Windows 7 for customers purchasing a qualifying PC," said company spokesman Brandon LeBlanc in a post to the Windows 7 blog Tuesday afternoon. More information, said LeBlanc, would be disclosed as the program's kick-off nears.

But Microsoft isn't the only source of information regarding the upgrade offer, which will probably resemble Vista Express Upgrade, a program that gave people who purchased Windows XP PCs free or inexpensive upgrades to Vista.

TechARP.com, a Web site that has a solid track record in pegging Microsoft plans, said as early as January that Microsoft would unveil an upgrade program for Windows 7. In April, TechARP reported that Microsoft had changed the name of the program to Windows 7 Upgrade Option, the same moniker the company used today.

In a long account last updated two weeks ago, TechARP spelled out what its OEM sources have revealed about the upgrade offer.

According to the site, PCs with a license for Vista Home Premium, Vista Business and Vista Ultimate purchased between June 26, 2009 and Jan. 31, 2010 will be eligible for a free or reduced-price Windows 7 upgrade.

Only "like-to-like upgrades" will be supported by the program, said TechARP, meaning that people who buy a PC with Vista Home Premium during the eligible period will be offered an upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium. In the same fashion, Vista Business will be upgraded only to Windows 7 Professional, and Vista Ultimate to Windows 7 Ultimate.

That leaves out Vista Home Basic, the lowest-priced edition available in most markets, including the U.S. "Windows Home Basic is not in scope for this program as there is no 'like' version of Windows 7 in mature markets," said the site.

Microsoft will make a Windows 7 Home Basic edition, but plans to sell it only in emerging markets. Some have wondered whether Microsoft is ditching Home Basic from the Windows 7 line in the U.S. because of the flak it caught, including the notorious "Vista Capable" class-action lawsuit, over that edition.

That case, which has been suspended while the plaintiffs appeal a federal judge's ruling, accused Microsoft of misleading consumers in the run-up to the January 2007 release of Vista by marketing PCs as able to run Vista when the only version usable on the machines was the stripped-down Home Basic.

In fact, in 2005, some within Microsoft unsuccessfully argued that Vista Home Basic should be stripped of the "Vista" name because they feared "user product expectations" would be unmet.

TechARP noted that Microsoft is avoiding a repeat by banning Vista Home Basic from the Windows 7 upgrade program. "Not all Windows Home Basic PCs meet the Windows 7 hardware requirements, whereas all Logo-qualifying versions of Windows Vista Home Premium, Windows Vista Business, and Windows Vista Ultimate will meet the Windows 7 hardware requirements," the site said.

Netbook buyers will also be ineligible for a free or discounted upgrade, said TechARP, because those small, lightweight and inexpensive notebooks are equipped with either Windows XP Home or Vista Home Basic. Neither of those operating systems have an upgrade path under the program. "Microsoft's current solution for netbooks [is] Windows XP Home Basic or Vista Home Basic. ... By definition, [netbooks] cannot qualify for the Windows 7 Upgrade Option Program because they do not have the necessary OS preinstalled," said the site.

However, Microsoft reportedly will offer a Windows 7 upgrade to people who buy PCs during the program's run that have been factory-downgraded to Windows XP Professional.

That seeming contradiction is nothing of the sort: Machines downgraded to XP Professional actually come with a license to either Vista Business or Vista Ultimate, both of which will be eligible for the discounted or free upgrade to Windows 7.

TechARP had no information on what computer makers and retailers may charge for the Windows 7 upgrade. That's no surprise, since it's probable that OEMs and retailers will be given considerable flexibility by Microsoft. In 2006's Vista Express Upgrade, for example, some PC makers, such as Hewlett-Packard, offered free upgrades, while others, including Dell, charged users up to $49.

The most important piece of information still missing is the start date for the deal. Microsoft's reticence to divulge that is understandable, said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "Once you've told people the date, that starts the clock," said Cherry. "Now people, if they're inclined to wait [until the program begins] will wait to buy."

And that's the last thing Microsoft wants to do, since its revenues for Windows are tied to the number of PCs sold. "The effort is not so much to get people to upgrade, but so that the announcement of a new release doesn't totally stop PC sales dead until it comes out," Cherry said.

TechARP's June 26 start -- three weeks from this Friday -- is reasonable when compared to the timeframe Microsoft applied for the similar Vista program. In 2006, Microsoft started Vista Express Upgrade 96 days before the Jan. 30, 2007 official retail release of the OS.

If Microsoft used the exact same time span between the start of Windows 7's deal and the operating system's on-sale date of Oct. 22, it would launch the program on July 18.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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