Microsoft has said it will sell upgrade media so that users can move more easily from Windows XP to Windows 7.
But it warned XP users they must do a "clean" installation of Windows 7, meaning they will lose all data on their machines.
"Regarding XP, customers can purchase upgrade media and an upgrade licence to move from Windows XP to Windows 7," a Microsoft spokeswoman told Computerworld. "However, they will need to do a clean installation of Windows 7."
In a follow-up reply to questions, the spokeswoman fleshed out what Microsoft means by upgrade. "The 'upgrade' part is referring to the licence," she said. "You will be able to get the discounted 'upgrade' licence, but it will include full bits."
That's how David Smith, an analyst at Gartner, interpreted 'upgrade' in Microsoft's description of what it would offer XP owners. "They're talking about the upgrade price," he said, pointing out that most software vendors use the term to designate a lower-priced version aimed at existing customers.
Although Microsoft has spelled out the six planned versions of Windows 7, it declined to provide pricing for them, or for the XP upgrade licences.
Typically, an operating system upgrade offers users the choice between an in-place migration of the machine - including installed applications and all data - and a fresh installation, which overwrites the hard drive's contents. When Microsoft launched Windows Vista in January 2007, for example, it offered people then running XP those upgrade paths.
Smith and other analysts applauded Microsoft's decision to not provide in-place upgrades from XP to Windows 7. "I'm not a big fan of them," said Smith. "They're tough enough from one version to the next, and from two versions [behind], it would be pretty challenging, technically."
Michael Gartenberg, formerly an analyst at JupiterResearch, and now a vice president of mobile strategy with JupiterMedia, agreed. "For most end users, it will probably mean that they end up with a more reliable installation," he said.
Microsoft benefits, too. "It makes life a lot easier for Microsoft by not having to support an XP to Windows 7 transition," said Gartenberg. "It means that it's something they can get out the door earlier."
Microsoft has been aggressively pushing Windows 7's timetable. Just two weeks after it launched the first - and in the end, the only - public beta of the new operating system, the head of Windows development said the company is moving directly to 'release candidate'.
But the process of upgrading a PC from Windows XP to Windows 7 won't be easy, Gartenberg predicted. "It's a double-edged sword. For many consumers who may be looking to go directly from XP to Windows 7, the idea of doing a clean install, backing up their applications, backing up their data, can lead to a lot of hassles," he said.
"Considering that there's a lot of XP out there, one has to wonder why Microsoft is taking this approach," Gartenberg added. "It's not going to be the simplicity of sticking a disc in the drive and upgrading. We'll have to see if that affects the upgrade market."
Microsoft said it was working on ways to help Windows XP users make the move, but would not get specific. "Microsoft plans to have other tools and ways to help people get through that process, but we don't have full details on that at this time," the company's spokesman said today.