Microsoft employee Brandon LeBlanc explained the change in a blog post on Monday. However, those looking for an exact date will be disappointed. The short answer is that Microsoft extended Windows 7 downgrade rights to Windows Vista or Window XP "throughout the Windows 7 lifecycle," according to the blog.
A clarification offered by long-time Microsoft observer Ed Bott explains that the lifecycle being referred to here is Microsoft's sales cycle, not its support lifecycle. Consequently, some media accounts have incorrectly calculated that Window XP downgrade rights will extend to 2020 based on support lifecycle dates, according to Bott. He estimates new PC buyers will only have downgrade rights to Windows XP "by the end of 2015."
Those organizations that purchase the right to use Windows 7 through volume licensing accounts should ignore such dates, since LeBlanc is only referring to situations where users get new PCs with Windows 7 through OEMs. Also, the downgrade rights only apply to Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate editions. Those downgrading to Vista or XP can only downgrade to similar editions (that is, Professional and Ultimate). Windows 7 Home edition users don't have downgrade rights at all.
Downgrade rights depend on a number of factors, which is why no firm date can be given. While Professional and Ultimate Windows 7 users can downgrade two generations removed to XP, they lose that right to move to XP when the next Windows OS comes to market. Possibly, the next version of Window will be "Windows 8," although Microsoft hasn't announced it yet. If Windows 8 aligns with Microsoft's three-year schedule for new OSes, Windows 8 might be seen in October 2012.
However, this hypothetical Oct. 2012 date isn't the end of the story for those wanting XP downgrades. It's further complicated because Microsoft grants downgrade rights in its end user agreement (EULA) that differ from the "facilitation rights" that OEMs and Microsoft channel partners offer. So the downgrade rights for new Windows 7-based PCs depend on whether they are supported by the OEM, which must create imaged software on CD ROMs to provide the downgrade to customers.
"End user downgrade rights will be around for as long as Windows 7 is available for sale on PCs -- so 2 years after whatever comes next, a customer can walk into their retailer and buy a qualifying PC with Windows 7 Ultimate or Professional and have downgrade rights as part of their license," a Microsoft spokesperson explained by e-mail. "OEMs however are not going to have the same facilitation rights (ability to preinstall XP if the customer hasn't requested it already, etc.) after the October 22, 2010 deadline."
Microsoft recommends that customers ask their OEMs about downgrade rights options before the Oct. 22 deadline to determine the Windows 7 downgrade rights date more precisely.
To add to the confusion, the discussion about having the ability to downgrade from Windows 7 to XP is centered on the availability of new PCs from OEMs with those rights. LeBlanc clarified in his blog that once the PC is purchased with Windows 7 downgrade rights, that right lasts for "the life of the PC." Presumably, the user might have to perform the downgrade, though, if the OEM doesn't support it with imaged media.
"Customers who purchase Windows 7 PCs with end user downgrade rights as provided in the software license terms (EULA) will be able to downgrade to Windows XP Professional on those PCs for the life of the PC," LeBlanc explained in the blog. "However, customers will not be able to buy a Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate PC with end user downgrade rights after Windows 7 reaches the end of sales date in the OEM channel -- which according to the current Windows Lifecycle policy is 2 years after the next version of Windows ships."
More import for organizations considering moving off Windows XP is the topic of LeBlanc's original post -- namely, the availability of the first service pack beta for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2. LeBlanc said that the finalized SP1 rollout is expected to happen in "the first half of 2011."
The common wisdom among many IT orgs is to move to a new Microsoft software product after the first service pack release. However, based on the beta, SP1 contains no new updates for Windows 7 and just two virtualization performance improvements for those using Windows Server 2008 R2.
The majority of companies and organization still use Windows XP, a nine-year-old operating system. During her keynote speech at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington, D.C., Tami Reller said that 74 percent of business PCs run XP. Reller, who is Microsoft's corporate vice president and chief financial officer for Windows and Windows Live, attributed XP's continuation partly to companies "sweating out the hardware longer" following the economic downturn in 2008.
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