Saturday, February 09, 2008

NEC Software Tool Downgrades Vista PCs To Windows XP

In the latest sign that Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT)'s Windows Vista operating system has failed to catch on with businesses, Japanese computer maker NEC has released a software tool that helps IT managers downgrade Vista-based PCs to the older Windows XP OS.

NEC's FlexLoad "enables you to make a fast and easy downgrade" from the Business edition of Windows Vista to Windows XP Professional, NEC said in a statement. The software works with NEC's PowerMate PCs and Versa laptops.

NEC is including FlexLoad with all Versa systems shipped after February, and it's making it available as an option on PowerMate computers. FlexLoad also gives users the ability to restore their computers to Windows Vista at a later time.

"The solution is based on the legal downgrade policy of Microsoft," NEC said in a statement. That means users who downgrade from Vista to XP need pay for just one operating system license.

NEC is the latest PC maker to offer business customers a path back to Windows XP. Others, including Dell (Dell) and Hewlett Packard (NYSE: HP), recently re-introduced XP as an on option on certain commercial system.

The problem: Many businesses are balking at Vista's resource requirements and compatibility problems with existing software.

There's also evidence that Windows XP outperforms Vista. Researchers at Devil Mountain Software, a Florida-based developer of performance management tools, have posted data from their most recent Windows performance tests -- and Vista, even after it's been upgraded to the new Service Pack 1, is shown to be a laggard.

The researchers compared patched and unpatched versions of Vista and XP running Microsoft Office on a dual-core Dell notebook. The results revealed the time taken to complete Office productivity tasks such as the creation of a compound document and presentation materials.

Windows XP trounced Windows Vista in all tests -- regardless of the versions used or the amount of memory running on the computer. In fact, XP proved to be roughly twice as fast as Vista in most of the tests.

As a result, many businesses are sticking with Windows XP for as long as possible. And some may bypass Vista altogether and wait to upgrade their PCs to Windows 7, a Vista successor that's due out in 2010.

An InformationWeek survey last year found that 30% of businesses have no plans to upgrade their computers to Vista.

How Many Versions of Vista?

Microsoft says the reason it's ending the "Anytime Upgrade" digital key downloads for Windows Vista upgrades based on feedback from customers. I can believe customers were confused, but I can't believe that's the real reason for the change. I think it's a step Microsoft had to take to clear the decks for reducing the number of versions of Vista.

For sure, the "Anytime Upgrade" program wasn't been easy to understand. The pitch was that all the versions of Vista would install from a single DVD, so that you could easily upgrade from one to another just by putting your Vista disk in your PCs drive. Of course, it was a little more complicated than that: The upgrade wasn't (and still won't be) free, and you paid for it by going to the Microsoft Web site and buying a small piece of software, a digital "product key." Then you hunted up the Vista disk that came with your PC and fed it the key.

But what if you couldn't find your Vista disk? Would the key work with another one? Or what if you lost or screwed up the digital key? Could you get it replaced? Or what if the installation failed? Would the key allow you to rerun it? Many questions – enough, in fact, to make AnyTime Upgrading look like a risky business to the very people it was intended to attract – home users who aren't IT professionals. (The same home users, to be sure, who were being threatened by Microsoft that if their Vista installation was one bit less than perfect it might be disabled when it failed validation, or was rejected by Windows Genuine Advantage.)

The result could certainly have been that Anytime Upgrade had the opposite effect from what Microsoft intended – rather than bringing in a pot of upgrade money, it inhibited upgrades by scaring off potential upgraders.

But I don't think that's the real reason why Microsoft will stop selling digital keys on Feb. 20 and start selling boxed upgrades that contain a DVD and a standard product key. I think that when those boxes finally hit the shelves, we'll find that they don't line up with the current Vista versions.

Six versions of Vista have been too many. (Yes, six – Home Basic, which is basically Windows XP with new screensavers; Home Premium; Business; Enterprise, which is the volume-licensing version and doesn't come in a box; Ultimate; and were you forgetting Vista Starter, available only in countries redlined by Microsoft?)

When Vista was launched a year ago, the number of versions, combined with the "Wow" ad campaign that pushed benefits that might or might not be in particular versions, created some confusion in the marketplace -- which versions include Windows Media Player but not Windows Media Center? Which include BitLocker? Which don't install Aero?

The "Wow" campaign went away pretty quickly. Now it's past time for Microsoft to actively try to sell Vista again, and a realignment of the product line seems to be a prerequisite.

Microsoft has already started to simplify the story it has to tell. Vista Service Pack 1 will remove the kill switch in Microsoft Genuine Advantage to reduce it from a sales-prevention initiative to a nag screen. Recent license changes will decriminalize virtualization of the least expensive versions of Vista -- Home and Home Premium. But Anytime Upgrades locks in the versions of Vista on customers' DVDs. Solution: drop Anytime Upgrades and instead, sell people a new DVD that can have whatever version of Vista on it Microsoft wants to sell that week.

I disclaim any hard information on what changes will be made in the version lineup. (The only thing I know for sure is that we'll hear the phrase "user experience" repeated ad nauseum by Microsoft marketing types.) But I would like to make one suggestion. How about a "Windows Vista Compatibility Edition" that would work exactly like XP Pro, right down to the Teletubbies field-of-grass desktop background?