With three versions of Windows soon to be sharing the market, PC Advisor helps you decide which one to choose.
The new battleground: netbooks
Windows 7 may be an obvious successor on the desktop, but its role in portable computing is less certain. XP-based netbooks have proved a runaway success, so Microsoft needs to work hard to lure fans of smaller, cheaper laptops to buy its shiny new OS.
In April 2008, the official cut-off date for XP-based netbooks was extended to mid-2010. While rumours abound that Windows 7's launch will be earlier than originally suggested, Microsoft hasn't announced revised plans for XP to stop being sold. In September 2008 Microsoft set a cut-off date of 31 January 2009 for the sale of original equipment manufacturer (OEM) versions.
A statement given to PC Advisor from Microsoft's Redmond headquarters in mid-February suggested it's sticking to its guns and allowing OEMs to build and sell XP PCs only with licences they have already bought.
The statement revealed that Microsoft "is making accommodations through a flexible inventory programme that will allow distributors to take delivery and receive orders after the end-of-sales deadline for Windows XP this winter."
The accommodations in question seem to relate to how these licences are bought, rather than affecting when Microsoft would stop selling them.
"The 31 January 2009 deadline we announced back in September 2008 represented the date when authorised OEM distributors could place their final Windows XP order," Microsoft added. "However, OEM distributors could and can still ship to exhaust their Windows XP product inventory. This change also provides for system builders, as they obtain their XP products through a distributor."
Another unconfirmed rumour is that Microsoft will launch a cut-down version of Windows 7 for netbooks, ensuring both cost and system requirements are kept low.
See also: Windows 7 video guide
Microsoft's big comeback
The desktop will be the main battleground for Windows 7. In the US, Mac OS X is now the platform of choice for 10 percent of users, with the UK and Europe not far off this figure. While that leaves Microsoft a healthy majority, it can't afford to get it wrong again.
Happily for Microsoft, a side effect of the disappointment some consumers have experienced with Vista is that there's a great deal of interest in its replacement. The beta version of Windows 7 immediately caught the public's attention, prompting Microsoft to extend the original two-week download window so more of us could give it a try.
It's largely gone down well. The damage Vista did to Microsoft's reputation shouldn't be underestimated, but with Windows 7 it seems to have got more right than wrong. Even so, downgrade rights for Windows 7 users who want to be able to use XP instead have already been mooted. Since XP will almost certainly be difficult to get hold of when Windows 7 launches, it's hard to see how this could be feasible.
The other issue for Microsoft is dealing with a vocal minority of Vista users who are highly aggrieved by the existing OS and believe they should be given its replacement for free. Forum users and commenters on PC Advisor's website have discussed this issue at length, while one disgruntled US customer has gone so far as to seek a refund from Microsoft for the $59 she had to stump up for her XP downgrade disc.
Gartner analyst Michael Silver has described such rights for Windows 7 as "essential". Microsoft has yet to declare whether it will continue to allow customers to install XP on new PCs once Windows 7 launches. The current line, announced in April 2008, is that netbooks with Windows XP preinstalled will continue to be available until mid-2010, but this broad agreement was made before Microsoft began to bring forward the likely launch date for Windows 7.
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