Typically, when Microsoft announces something as important as, say, the retail pricing structure of Windows 7, the announcement is designed to answer questions, not cause them. But in the case of this particular announcement, there are more questions than answers. That's pretty astonishing given the months of time that the software giant had to communicate this message.
On Thursday, Microsoft announced the retail pricing for Windows 7 and revealed a limited-time promotional offer through which customers can purchase Windows 7 Home Premium and Professional—but not, oddly, Ultimate—for drastically reduced prices. Much of the mainstream press incorrectly reported that Microsoft had sharply cut prices on Windows 7, but that's not true. After two weeks, the "Crazy Eddie" pricing ends and Windows 7 goes back to the normal pricing structure. That is, it will cost about as much as its predecessor, Windows Vista.
Why criticize even a temporary price cut? Because, according to Microsoft, only about 5 percent of Windows users acquire the product at retail. The vast majority of customers acquire Windows with a new PC or, in the case of larger businesses, through a subscription-based volume- licensing program that is version-agnostic. Put simply, Microsoft gets a lot of free press for this stunt, but the fact remains that very few people (relative to the installed base of Windows, more than a billion people worldwide) will even take advantage of the deal.
And depending on where you live, that deal might not even be available—or will be offered with sharply different terms or much higher prices. In Australia, for example, Microsoft isn't offering any promotional pricing, so customers there will have to pay full price. Meanwhile, because of ongoing antitrust litigation in the European Union (EU), customers there can't even purchase Upgrade versions of Windows 7, at least through the end of the year. (Microsoft isn't sure.) Until then, users there will be able to purchase the Full versions of Windows 7 at Upgrade prices. This seems like a good deal until you realize that these versions are incapable of upgrading existing PCs to the new OS. Instead, customers will have to "clean install" the OS, which requires them to wipe out or otherwise ignore their existing Windows install.
But back to those questions I mentioned. There are a lot of them. In the wake of the announcement, I fired off almost a dozen questions to Microsoft's PR firm in an attempt to clarify what was going on. So far, I've received contradictory and incomplete answers to some questions and no answers to others. A few of the more pertinent questions include:
Q: Do the retail versions of Windows 7 include 32-bit or 64-bit Setup discs, or are there separate packages as there were for Vista?
A: The retail versions of Windows 7 (which include Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate) come with two separate Setup discs, one of which is 32-bit and one that is 64-bit.
Q: Can I buy an electronic version of Windows 7, download it, and burn it to DVD?
A: Yes, but only from the online Microsoft Store.
Q: Is that version 32-bit or 64-bit?
A: I'm told you'll get the choice when you download, but of course the downloads won't be ready until October 22, 2009.
Q: Can I use the same product key to install a 32-bit version of Windows 7 on one PC and a 64-bit version on another?
A: No. The product key will be tied to the first PC on which you activate.
Q: What are the virtualization rights for Windows 7? (That is, which versions are licensed for installation in virtual machines by consumers?)
A: I don't know. I'm still waiting for the answer to that question.
Q: Can I perform a clean (full) install of Windows 7 with the Upgrade media?
A: Microsoft says yes.
Q: Does a version of Windows have to already be installed on the PC in that case?
A: I don't know. I'm still waiting for the answer to that question and/or actual Upgrade media for testing.
Q: Does that clean install with Upgrade media require the same hokey and time-consuming "double install" method that was required with Vista Upgrade media?
A: I don't know. I'm still waiting for the answer to that question, but I believe it will work as it does with Windows Vista.
Q: It seems like people who spent extra on Vista Ultimate should be rewarded in some way, since that product never lived up to Microsoft's promises. Why is there no promotional pricing on Windows 7 Ultimate, especially for Vista Ultimate users?
A: I don't know. (And I agree with you.)
Q: I have Windows Vista Home Premium. Do I have to get Windows 7 Home Premium Upgrade, or can I purchase any Windows 7 Upgrade version?
A: As long as you qualify for Upgrade pricing (i.e., have basically any version of Windows XP or Vista), you can purchase and install any Windows 7 Upgrade version. However, you may or may not be able to perform an in-place upgrade, depending on your current Windows version. A person with Windows Vista Ultimate, for example, qualifies for Windows 7 Home Premium. But that person would have to perform a clean install.
Q: What is the pricing for Windows Anytime Upgrade (the electronic upgrades that let you go from one Windows 7 product edition to another?)?
A: Microsoft has not yet announced WUA pricing, sorry.
Q: Is Microsoft ever going to provide easy and cheap multi-PC licensing for Windows 7 (similar to Apple's Mac OS X Family Pack pricing)?
A: I've been told that Microsoft is aware of this need and is examining doing so for Windows 7. Note, however, that I was told the same for Vista and it never happened.
Q: Can I buy a retail version of Windows 7 Starter and install it on my own PC?
A: Apparently not.
Q: What happened to Windows 7 Home Basic?
A: With Windows 7, the Home Basic version is only being sold in emerging markets.
Q: How could Microsoft not have thought to clearly answer these questions in advance?
A: You're so cute. Here, let me muss up your hair. Better?
But seriously, folks, I do wonder about that. How an announcement aimed at clarifying pricing could unleash such a wave of unanswered questions is beyond me. And I'm sure you have more questions, so please fire off an email message to me at email@example.com and I'll try to get it answered. I'll be collecting these questions and answers in my Windows 7 FAQ going forward.