Windows 8 upgrade path from Vista, XP still unclear

Microsoft today declined to confirm whether users of Windows XP and Vista will be able to upgrade their PCs to Windows 8 when the latter launches later this year.

On Monday, Microsoft spelled out the editions it would offer customers working with 32- and 64-bit Intel and AMD processor-powered PCs and tablets.

In that blog post, the company also noted the upgrade paths to Windows 8 for existing machines, saying that people now running Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic or Home Premium could upgrade to the consumer-oriented Windows 8. Systems running Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate will be upgradable to Windows 8 Pro.

Although Microsoft did not specify the upgrade path for customers currently running Windows 7 Enterprise, the assumption is that they will be able to upgrade to Windows 8 Enterprise, which, like its predecessor, will be distributed only to companies with Software Assurance upgrade agreements.

The omission of the problem-plagued Vista and the nearly 11-year-old XP from Microsoft’s explicit upgrade path seemed odd: In February, the company used an FAQ to plainly state that users of those OSes could upgrade to Windows 8’s beta, tagged “Consumer Preview.”

“You can upgrade to Windows 8 Consumer Preview from Windows Developer Preview, Windows 7, Windows Vista, or Windows XP,” the FAQ stated, “but you might not be able to keep all of your files, programs and settings.”

Developer Preview was Microsoft’s name for the first public sneak peak at Windows 8 as a work-in-progress, and was issued last September.

In the FAQ, Microsoft said that Vista users who upgraded would retain user accounts and files, as well as Windows settings. XP-to-Windows 8 upgrades would only preserve user accounts and files. Windows 7-to-Windows 8 upgrades, meanwhile, conserved not only user accounts, data files and Windows settings, but also already-installed applications in the move.

Ironically, migrating from Windows 7 is more thorough than from Windows 8’s own Developer Preview, which will retain only as much information as an XP-to-Windows 8 transfer.

When asked today whether Vista and XP users would be able to upgrade to Windows 8 RTM, or “release to manufacturing” — the label used to designate the final code — as they were allowed in the Consumer Preview, a Microsoft spokeswoman declined to comment. “[We have] no information to share outside of what’s in the blog,” she said in an email.

It’s possible Microsoft was using a narrow definition of “upgrade” in the Monday blog that confirmed only Windows 7-to-Windows 8 paths, one that included application migration as well as that for files and settings.

Previously, that kind of upgrade has been called “in-place,” or one that leaves everything undisturbed as it swaps out the old OS for the new.

If Vista and XP get the cold shoulder, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Three years ago, Microsoft offered an in-place upgrade to Windows 7 to users running Vista, but gave XP customers only the option of what it called a “custom” install — others pegged it as a “clean” install — that deleted all data on the hard drive before installing the then-new operating system.

It may seem foolish to exclude XP users from a possible Windows 8 upgrade since that 2001 edition powered 51% of all Windows PCs that went online last month, according to metrics company Net Applications. Vista accounted for another 8% of all Windows editions.

But the aged hardware running XP may be the hurdle Windows 8 can’t jump: Microsoft has repeatedly said that PCs able to run Windows 7 will be able to run the new OS, but the system requirements it outlined for the Consumer Preview — a 1GHz processor, 1GB of memory and a graphics card able to handle DirectX 9 or later — may preclude many older machines.

Microsoft has not yet revealed the pricing for Windows 8’s upgrades, or described how they will be distributed.

While Windows 7’s upgrade in 2009 was handled much the same as always, Microsoft debuted a new strategy with Office 2010 when it dropped upgrade pricing — a move that effectively raised costs for users of earlier editions of the suite — and launched single-licence “key cards” that carried only an activation code.

According to one analyst, Microsoft is unlikely to follow Apple’s lead and offer Windows 8 upgrades only through its online channels, which could include Windows Store, the software market designed for Windows 8. Microsoft has not said whether Windows 7 users will be able to access that e-store.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg’s RSS feed. His email address is [email protected]

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