Microsoft gives XP another lease on life

Microsoft has extended the availability of Windows XP on new PCs by six months, the company confirmed today.

Computer makers that “downgrade” machines from Windows Vista Business or Vista Ultimate to Windows XP Professional will be able to obtain media for the latter through the end of July 2009, a Microsoft spokeswoman said Friday.

The new date is a change in policy. Previously, Microsoft had planned to halt XP Professional media shipments to major computer makers after Jan. 31, 2009.

“As more customers make the move to Windows Vista, we want to make sure that they are making that transition with confidence and that it is as smooth as possible. Providing downgrade media for a few more months is part of that commitment,” the spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

The Jan. 31 date is also the last day when smaller companies, dubbed “system builders,” will be allowed to purchase Windows XP licenses to install on the machines they assemble.

The system-builder deadline has not changed, the spokeswoman added. It remains Jan. 31.

To confuse matters, some PC makers have long claimed that they would provide XP downgrades on new computers past the Jan. 31 deadline. Last June, for example, Hewlett-Packard Co. talked of a July 2009 cutoff.

“HP…will continue to offer this option on its business systems through at least July 30, 2009,” a company spokesman said almost four months ago.

The Microsoft spokeswoman clarified the situation. “The [downgrade] rights don’t go away,” she said via instant messaging in response to follow-up questions. “It’s all about having the media on hand. It’s always been OK to use what you’ve got.”

Microsoft sent Windows XP into semiretirement last June when it stopped selling the aged operating system at retail, withdrew Windows XP Home from use on new PCs and allowed XP Professional to be installed as a Vista downgrade.

The latter tactic takes advantage of Vista’s end-user licensing agreement, which allows users — and in their stead, computer makers — to install Windows XP Professional while also providing media for Vista for a possible upgrade later.

More than a third of all new PCs are being downgraded from Windows Vista to Windows XP, according to data from a Florida company that operates a community-based performance testing network.

According to Devil Mountain Software Inc., which operates a community-based testing network, nearly 35 per cent of the 3,000-plus PCs it examined had been downgraded from Vista to XP.

“Either these machines were downgraded by [sellers like] Dell or HP, or they were downgraded by the user after they got the machine,” said Craig Barth, chief technology officer at Devil Mountain. “In any case, these machines are no longer running Vista.”

Barth used data provided by users to Devil Mountain’s Exo.performance.network to come up with his numbers.

By collating such things as the vendor and system model number with manufacturers’ catalogs, Barth was able to identify machines that were probably shipped within the past six months, a period when virtually every new PC was offered with Vista preinstalled.

“The 35 per cent is only an estimate, but it shows a trend within our own user base,” Barth said. “People are taking advantage of Vista’s downgrade rights.”

Under the terms of Microsoft’s end-user licensing agreement, Vista Business and Vista Ultimate can be “downgraded” to XP Professional; businesses that purchase Vista Enterprise can also downgrade to XP.

Although Microsoft retired Windows XP from mainstream availability at the end of June – it stopped shipping the seven-year-old operating system to retail and large computer makers – some OEMs have continued to offer new PCs with XP preinstalled by doing the downgrade at the factory.

Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, promised that it would offer the downgrade option on its business-class desktops, notebooks and workstations through July 2009.

“Vista’s installed base certainly doesn’t equal the number of Vista licenses [that Microsoft has] sold,” Barth said, citing the Exo.performance.network data as proof. “We’re seeing this a lot in the financial sector.”

Devil Mountain’s primary product, the DMS Clarity Studio performance-analyzing software, is installed in large numbers at several major financial firms. “One client is not doing Vista at all, but they’re refreshing their entire platform this year,” Barth said. The company, a nationally known securities firm, is instead downgrading to the 64-bit version of Windows XP, he said.

Last year, Devil Mountain benchmarked Vista and XP performance using other performance-testing tools and concluded that XP was much faster. Barth said things haven’t changed since then. “Everything I’ve seen clearly shows me that Vista is an OS that should never have left the barn,” he noted.

Even when stripping Vista down to core components to make it as close in functionality to XP as possible, Vista was 40 per cent slower, Barth claimed, citing recent tests Devil Mountain has performed. “Vista’s performance had been an ongoing problem, and the only thing that’s saving Microsoft’s bacon is the faster processors and more RAM on today’s PCs,” he said. “Moore’s Law is always on their side.”

It’s also possible that XP will be widely available long after July 31, 2009. “Downgrade rights do not expire,” Microsoft’s spokeswoman said Friday.

The longer availability puts Microsoft in an unusual position; the new time line will make it possible for users to purchase XP-powered PCs through next July, just months before Microsoft plans to roll out Windows 7, the successor to Vista.

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