How to get Windows XP after June 30

Businesses will still have a few ways to avoid a forced move to Vista

Two weeks ago, InfoWorld launched a petition campaign to save Windows XP. So far we’ve gotten more than 70,000 signatures, thanks to a passionate response from a wide range of XP users. We hope we can persuade Microsoft to keep selling XP licenses indefinitely, past the June 30 deadline, after which Microsoft has said no more shrink-wrapped or OEM licenses will be available for retailers, computer makers, and others to order. (Vendors can continue to sell by June 30 any XP licenses they ordered from Microsoft, but when they run out of those, they can't get more to sell.)

We fully acknowledge that, even if we get a million signatures, Microsoft may stick with its original plan. If new Windows XP licenses come to a screeching halt after June 30 as currently planned, what can IT do to get more XP seats? The answer depends on your licensing arrangement with Microsoft. The short answer for most users, though, is that Microsoft will let people with Vista Business or Ultimate "downgrade" to Windows XP Pro under specific circumstances.

Here, based on Microsoft's published documentation and on the company’s responses to our questions, is InfoWorld's guide to how you can get new XP licenses after Microsoft officially pulls the plug. Note that some of Microsoft's answers to us differ from what has been published on its Web site. Microsoft had changed some of its "downgrade" policies in summer 2007 and appears to have missed updating some of its documents.

Retail licenses
If you’re Joe XP user and you want additional upgrade or full-install packages, your only option is to stock up before the deadline. Only until July 1 can retailers order shrink-wrapped boxes of new XP licenses and upgrade licenses -- what Microsoft calls FPP (Full Package Product) licenses -- to sell to customers like you. Chances are these last licenses will sell out quickly after the June 30 order cutoff.

Also until July 1, individuals can buy XP licenses online from Microsoft (such as when you have an installation CD and need an extra license for it or when you need to load the software on a second computer), but not after that date.

OEM licenses
PC makers largely stopped selling XP preinstalled on new consumer-oriented desktops and laptops in spring 2007, although they remain available to business customers who order online or have a business account with OEMs such as Dell Computer or Hewlett-Packard. (Microsoft calls preinstalled copies of Windows "Direct OEM" licenses.) So larger businesses have by and large kept ordering XP-equipped PCs, although many individuals and small businesses bought Vista instead because they didn't know they had a choice. Recently, Dell began offering all customers, not just business ones, the option to get Windows XP instead of Vista on many models.

Today, people who have already bought Vista systems have two choices to get XP instead. One is to buy an FPP XP license before June 30 and install it over Vista.

The other is to "downgrade" to XP Professional, using an XP Pro install disc you already have or a "downgrade" XP Pro install disc supplied by the PC maker. Essentially, Microsoft lets you use your new Vista license for an XP Pro install. You have such "downgrade rights," however, only if you bought Vista Business or Vista Ultimate.

Note that you can't run both Vista and XP using the same license (so you can't, for example, install Vista on a virtual machine if you're also using the XP "downgrade" install as your boot OS). You get only one license and have to choose one OS or the other. And OEMs don't have to make the "downgrade" discs available to you.

Also note that any version of Windows preinstalled on a PC is licensed only for that computer and cannot be transferred to a different machine, so you cannot use such "old" licenses on new PCs, even if you no longer use the old hardware. But you can use your old XP discs under the "downgrade rights" conditions above.

After June 30, OEMs can no longer order new licenses of Windows XP. (The deadline is Jan. 31, 2009 for white-box PC makers, who have what Microsoft calls a System Builder license. Other than the date, the limitations and options for installing XP are the same as for Direct OEM licenses.) So how do you get XP on PCs you buy after these cutoff dates?

After the cutoff, OEMs may still install Windows XP Pro (not Home) on users' systems, but only for orders of 25 or more PCs. In this case, the systems must come with a Vista Business or Ultimate license, which is then transferred to the XP Pro install. Essentially, you're buying a Vista PC that the OEM can then put XP Pro on instead, using the Vista license to activate XP Pro. (Again, the OEMs don't have to provide this option.)

If you buy fewer than 25 PCs in an order, the OEM can install only Vista. You can still get XP Pro on those PCs, though, if they came with Vista Business or Ultimate. Those two Vista versions include the "downgrade rights" that let you apply the Vista license to your XP Pro installation. You can use your existing XP Pro install discs or get an XP "downgrade" disc from the PC maker (if it wants to supply it). Remember that "downgrade rights" are not available in OEM licenses for other versions of Vista, and they do not let you install XP Home.

Enterprise licenses
Businesses that have volume Windows licenses can also install XP Pro after the order cutoff deadlines. If you have a volume license for any version of Vista (not just Business and Ultimate), you may install XP Pro on your Vista PCs using the "downgrade rights" granted in the volume license.

To downgrade, you can use your existing copy of the XP Pro installation images. Microsoft will also supply an XP Pro "downgrade" installation disc or disc image after the cutoff dates. As noted earlier, OEMs can also do the "downgrade" for you in some cases.

"Most small businesses, enterprises, government agencies and educational institutions purchase their software through volume license agreements. As part of those volume license agreements, they get downgrade rights as part of the license," noted a Microsoft spokesperson. Volume licenses are available for as few as five seats.

"Subscription" licenses
Some businesses don't directly license Windows, but instead "rent" it from IT support companies such as CenterBeam that provision Windows, Office, and other software on a per-user, per-month basis under Microsoft's Service Provider License Agreement. The service provider actually owns the license. If your business gets its Windows OSes this way, any XP licenses acquired through the provider will stay active, said Karen Hayward, executive vice president at CenterBeam. For new users after June 30, however, it's not clear if CenterBeam can offer XP, she noted. The service provider license does not forbid provisioning of XP after that date, but neither does it specifically allow it. CenterBeam hopes to have a clarification from Microsoft in February.

The Microsoft spokesperson said that such providers' license agreements with Microsoft would specify how long each provider could offer XP, but that the June 30 and January 31 cutoff dates should have no effect on them.

What happens to existing licenses
Organizations can continue to use any Windows XP licenses they have indefinitely, even after the OS is no longer available for new licenses.

For technical support and updates, Microsoft will end mainstream support for XP on April 14, 2009, for most editions, and it will end extended support on April 8, 2014 for most editions. (Extended support is not available for consumer licenses.) Both support mechanisms include free security updates. Hot fixes for other issues are free only during the mainstream support period; non-consumer users wanting hot fixes must buy a hot-fix update plan from Microsoft before July 14, 2009.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.