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Will Windows 8 downgrade rights cure IT's paranoia?

by Stuart J. Johnston

Downgrade rights are a nice fail-safe for IT shops considering Windows 8, but other factors may still keep some organizations from adopting Microsoft's new desktop OS.

Microsoft will allow original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to offer customers downgrade rights, which let them purchase new PCs with an older version of Windows without having to buy two copies of the operating system. Windows 8, with its touchscreen capabilities and tiled interface, offers a significantly different user experience than its predecessors, and Microsoft hopes business customers will find peace of mind by being able to downgrade to the more familiar Windows 7.

 "The first thing you need to do is ask if there's any value there," said Ajit Kapoor, principal and managing director of The Kapoor Group, a global consultancy in Orlando, Fla. "What will I be able to do tomorrow that I can't already do with Windows 7?"

Are Windows 8 downgrade rights worth it?

Mike Nelson, infrastructure architect for a global insurance company in the Midwest, said Windows 8 downgrade rights will make the new OS more palatable to IT.

"The paranoia for IT with [a Windows 8] upgrade is application compatibility and hardware requirements and scalability," he said. "When something breaks in those two categories, IT can roll back without worrying about licensing."

Other IT pros and experts, however, will need more incentive to upgrade to Windows 7, whose user base is still growing.

"The driver will be whether or not the hardware that comes with Windows 8 provides a big enough boost in performance," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT Inc., a corporate advisory firm in Hayward, Calif.

Even if IT departments find the performance to be worth it, Windows 8 upgrades won't happen overnight. Many IT departments take six months to a year (or sometimes longer) to plan for OS upgrades -- a process that involves retraining users, application testing and other issues such as device driver compatibility testing.

"The look and feel [of Windows 8] is so different that corporations are not going to immediately retrain their people," Kapoor said.

Windows 8 will eventually be a success on the desktop, but that success will come at customers' pace, he said.

"It's not going to happen on Microsoft's timetable," he added.

In addition, IT often waits for the first Windows service pack before upgrading. Microsoft has not said when Windows 8 Service Pack 1 (SP1) will ship, but for comparison, Windows 7 SP1 shipped in February 2011, about 16 months after the initial release.

Microsoft released the Windows 8 code to manufacturing in early August, and sales of Windows 8 systems are slated to start Oct. 26. Hewlett-Packard and Dell Inc. declined to comment, but the largest PC OEMs are expected to ship Windows 8 PCs from day one.

To get Windows 8 downgrade rights, customers have to purchase Windows 8 Pro.

Windows XP: Time to move on

The installed base of Windows 7 finally overtook that of Windows XP in August, according to Web analytics firm Net Applications. Windows 7 now holds 42.8% of the desktop operating systems market, compared to 42.5% for XP, with Windows Vista bringing up the rear at 6.2%.

While both XP's and Vista's shares are declining, Windows 7's is growing.

"I’d suspect organizations, if possible, would want to postpone new PC purchases until they are ready to move the affected users to a newer version of the OS," said Rob Horwitz, research chair at Directions on Microsoft, an analyst firm in Kirkland, Wash.

For customers who hope to continue running Windows XP, experts advise it's time to move on. The OS first shipped in October  2001 and is no longer being updated and no longer available via downgrade, and all support for XP will expire in April 2014.

"It's critical to get off of Windows XP in the next 18 months, and there is not enough time to wait for Windows 8 SP1 and then plan and complete a deployment to Windows 8 in that time," said Paul DeGroot, principal consultant at Pica Communications, a Windows licensing consultancy in Camano Island, Wash.


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