Should Microsoft simplify XP-to-Win-7 upgrades?

XP users must do a clean install to get Windows 7, which could be a hurdle for adoption

When Windows 7 is released later this year or in early 2010, many PC users who upgrade will be coming from Windows XP. Unlike Vista users, they can't do an "in-place upgrade," in which the new OS overwrites the old one, preserving their installed applications, preferences, and data. Instead, they'll have to do a clean install, which means they have to back up their data, install Win 7 (either deleting or XP or installing as a separate environment), reinstall their apps, restore their data, and re-create their preferences.

For Windows XP users who avoided Vista because of its many problems, that upgrade work may seem as adding insult to injury, making it harder for them to finally adopt a new version of Windows. Through its PR agency, Microsoft confirms to InfoWorld that there will be no "in-place upgrade" option for XP users, but it declines to explain why not. "More materials on your question are in the works," the spokesman says.

[ Is Microsoft right or wrong? Randall C. Kennedy says Microsoft is making a big mistake that will further alienate XP users. J. Peter Bruzzese says Microsoft is looking out for its customers' best interests. Who's right? ]

Why a clean-install requirement may make sense
But there may be good reason not to support an in-place upgrade, suggests Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst who follows Microsoft technologies. That's because viruses, registry errors, and other performance-sapping flaws in the user's Windows environment would be carried over into Windows 7; something that would not happen with a clean install.

Business IT typically does clean installs on user systems to avoid these issues, Silver notes, so the lack of an in-place upgrade will be a nonissue for most enterprises.

Consumers and small businesses are the ones who tend to prefer the in-place upgrade option, Silver notes, and they're the ones who may be annoyed by the clean-install requirement if coming from XP. "Microsoft is in a bit of a no-win situation here: Support the upgrade and live with whatever bad experiences users have or don’t support the upgrade and make it harder for people to do it," Silver says.

"Most users will be better off doing the clean install anyway," he says, so he recommends that even Vista users avoid the in-place upgrade and proceed to the clean install.

Silver also notes that users who did not upgrade to Vista often have hardware that can't run Windows 7 or Vista (typically, PCs from 2006 or earlier), so they would likely get a new computer at the same time with Windows 7 preinstalled, which means reinstalling their apps, preferences, and data anyhow.

A precedent for providing in-place upgrades for earlier generations
When Microsoft shipped Windows Vista, it offered XP users the choice of an in-place upgrade or a clean install, but users of earlier Windows versions could do only a clean install. So the requirement for Windows XP and earlier users to do a clean install of Windows 7 follows that precedent.

But when Microsoft shipped Windows XP in late 2001, it gave not only users of the predecessor Windows 2000 but also users of the earlier generations (Windows 98, Windows Millennium, and Windows 98 Second Edition) the in-place upgrade option. In some ways, the situation then was similar to that situation today. Microsoft Millennium was a technical failure that customers avoided, causing Microsoft to quietly reissue Windows 98 SE and unofficially pull Millennium from the market. Then came Windows 2000, replacing the OS kernel and much of the architecture, which meant it needed newer hardware and was incompatible with many peripherals and applications. So most users stuck with Windows 98 or 98 SE, and Microsoft eased the path to XP by allowing in-place upgrades for them all.

Technically, the shift from Windows Vista to Windows 7 is small, so it should be easier to support an in-place upgrade from XP to Windows 7 than it was from Windows 98 to Windows XP. But Silver cites the performance and security issues that an in-place upgrade preserves as a reason that Microsoft may have chosen not to do so this time.

Silver contrasts Microsoft's situation with that of Apple, which lets users do an in-place upgrade three versions back (from Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar, 10.3 Panther, and 10.4 Tiger) to the current Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. "This is an area -- efficiency, ease, and success of upgrade -- where Apple has an edge," he notes, due to its greater control over the hardware and the more focused reach of the OS.

[ Can your PC run Windows 7? Find out with InfoWorld's free Windows Sentinel compatibility checker. | See our experts' first looks at Windows 7. ]

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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