Windows Enterprise Desktop

Feb 18 2009   4:54PM GMT

XP Downgrade Suit: Legitimate beef or frivolous complaint?

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

The latest Vista flap originates from a lawsuit filed against Microsoft Corporation stemming from fees assessed to Los Angeles computer user Emma Alvarado for downgrading a Lenovo notebook PC from Windows Vista to Windows XP. She had to pay an extra $59.25 to get Lenovo to make the switch, and is now claiming that “Microsoft has abused its market position to try to cash in on the popularity of Windows XP.” Microsoft’s rejoinder is pretty straightforward: they don’t get any of the money from the charge she was assessed so therefore there’s no basis for a complaint against them.

Closer investigation reveals a somewhat more murky situation, however. The most popular version of Windows Vista for notebook PCs these days is Windows Vista Home Premium Edition. But only Windows Vista Business Edition and Windows Vista Ultimate Edition (and presumably also Windows Vista Enterprise Edition, though it’s not available in a retail SKU) are eligible for downgrade to Windows XP, and only to the Professional version of that older operating system. In fact, most downgrade charges can be assigned to two cost categories:

  • Fees from the vendor for actually performing the downgrade operation–or rather, for performing a clean install of Windows XP Professional on the notebook being purchased.
  • Fees for upgrading Windows Vista from the default version included with a notebook PC at no extra charge–presumably Windows Vista Home Premium edition in most cases–to either Windows Vista Business Edition or Windows Vista Ultimate Edition. In fact, Microsoft does profit from any such charges (which not all notebook vendors assess) that may be included in a downgraded notebook’s purchase price.

The real question then becomes: is requiring purchase of a “downgradable” version of an OS an abuse of monopoly power? I’m no lawyer (and to legal professionals, that means that anything I say next means exactly nothing), but this is a situation that appears to cut both ways. Consumers are free to choose any options they like when they purchase a notebook PC. But likewise, Microsoft is under no obligation to make older versions of its OS available to buyers at the same prices as current versions.

Personally, I believe it’s fair to charge for downgrading a system because it requires a different build process from one that goes default all the way. It’s the difference that sparks the charge, not the fact that one build is inherently more expensive or difficult than the other (both involve imaging a disk, but the XP downgrade requires a different image from the Vista Home Premium default image; likewise, buyers who simply upgrade Vista to Business or Ultimate must also pay for that privilege).

I guess the suit will have to go to court so a judge can decide if it has enough merit to go to trial. That said, it will be interesting to see if Microsoft can be compelled to make downgrades purely a matter of preference and paying operational costs, or if they can indeed require buyers to upgrade an OS merely to make it eligible for downgrade. For companies and organizations that still standardize on XP, this is more than a matter of simple curiousity: it will have a tangible effect on the cost of purchase for XP-equipped notebook and desktop PCs. What do you think?

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