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The Windows 7 Upgrade that isn't

· 7 min read
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Now, the back of the Family Pack box says:

  • This version of Windows 7 is designed as an upgrade for Windows Vista®. If you are upgrading from Windows® XP, you will need to back up your files and settings and perform a clean install and then re-install your existing files, settings, and programs.

    Visit for important information.

Which is completely fine with me, because I always do a fresh install anyway, for performance reasons. So, with all my important data backed up, I formated the disk and proceeded to install.

The initial stages of the installation were pleasantly slick - feeling much more refined than good old XP, but the pleasantries were put on hold when it came time to enter my product key, which was consistently rejected! :(

I re-entered the product key several times... had someone else check it twice... re-entered it again... no joy! :(

I thought, "Maybe it wants the product key for the product that I'm upgrading from, ie my old Windows XP product key?", so I entered that, with no luck either :(

So, after a few more thoughts, I finally gave up, and phone the customer support number listed inside the box (this is the first time I have ever phoned a software support line!!).

The call went approximately like this...

Someone, clearly not Australian, answered the phone (I dare say it was a strong Indian accent I was hearing, but I'm no linguist). This man was a little difficult to understand, but not impossible. After explaining the situation he got me to read my product key out to him. He reported that the product key is definitely valid. Next I had to read to him the serial number printed on the inner ring of the installation disc... again, perfectly valid. He was stumped, so he told me that he would have to forward the call to "tech support". I though "Umm... tech support? ... what exactly are you then?", but simply said "Okay".

The next man was very similar - strong (Indian?) accent; a little hard to understand, but not at all impossible. Here I could simply cut and paste the above paragraph! He got me to read out the product key. That was okay, so then I had to read out the serial number. That was okay too apparently, so then he announced that he'd have to pass me on to tech support! Hmm... okay, this was getting a little bit silly... but let's go along with it (at least these two conversations were reasonably quick).

Next I was transferred to a woman. She had the same accent as the others, but it a was much weaker accent, and she was far easier to understand. She began exactly the same as the others (I somehow knew she would), getting me to tell her the product key and serial number, confirming both as valid. She also checked the product key against some pirated product keys list - no problems there either.

She verified that I was using the "Windows 7 Upgrade Family Pack" (presumably she could tell that from the disc's serial number). She then asked if I was doing a clean install or not. Upon explaining that I was indeed performing a clean install, she took some pleasure in announcing the problem - I had an "upgrade" key, which is not supposed to be used with a clean installation.

Hmm... the note on the box (see above) explains that I must do a "clean install" when upgrading from Windows XP, as was my case. But before I could explain this, she asked which version of Windows I was upgrading from, and once I reported Windows XP, she explained (quite nicely) that I had no choice but to do a clean install, and so there's a workaround for my situation.

So, with her talking me though it, here's what I had to do:

  1. Clear out the product key. Yes, that's right. If you leave the product key entirely empty, then Windows 7 will install quite happily. Of course once installed, you only get a short grace period (30 days?) in which to validate the installation before it stops working (not sure exactly how it stops, but you get the idea).
  2. Complete the installation.
  3. Run regedit as Administrator.
  4. Find the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Setup\OOBE key.
  5. Change the MediaBootInstall value from 1 to 0. Apparently this tells Windows that the installation began from a previous version of Windows, as opposed to booting from the installation disc.
  6. Run cmd.exe as Administrator.
  7. Run cscript.exe slmgr.vbs -rearm
  8. Right-click "Computer" from the Start menu, and select "Properties".
  9. Click the "Activate Windows now" link.

And with that, I was all done and the call ended. I was on the phone for a total of 27 minutes.

Now, the fact that such a workaround exists is no real surprise to me. But there's two non-technical aspects of this experience that I find rather surprising...

First of all, it surprises me that I had to go through three different people to get to the workaround. Specifically, this shows that the support staff involved are not kept very well up to date. Although I can easily understand this happening (I'm sure these call centers have a high turnover, and there's always new products / issues for them to learn about), surely its costing Microsoft, or at least the call centre, a lot of unnecessary money for such a basic query to have to involve three different people? Then again, perhaps not... I'm happy to admit that I have no real idea how the economics of a call centre work.

But, the far more surprising thing to me is simply that the upgrade path from Windows XP is unpleasant for the average user, undocumented (at least as far as the retail box goes), and thus expensive for Microsoft as people have to make unnecessary support calls. This tells me one thing, and that one thing quite strongly: Microsoft does not expect many people to be upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7... Vista to 7, sure, but not really XP to 7, since they would surely not risk such a bad upgrade experience for their intended market.

Now, when you consider the current market shared of Windows XP ( 65.49%) versus Windows Vista ( 16.51%, its clear that Microsoft really ought to be focusing primarily on Windows XP users upgrading, not Vista users... Vista users ought to be an after-thought in terms streamlining the ugragde path compared to existing XP users. Now I appreciate that Vista users are probably the lowest hanging fruit at the moment (since Vista has received such a bad wrap since launching, leading me to assume that there a plenty of unsatisfied Vista users looking for something new), but still, it surprises me to see Microsoft being so single-minded as to neglect their biggest potential upgrade market.

I can therefore, only assume one of two things: either Microsoft is not really confident in their ability to compel existing Windows XP users to upgrade to Windows 7 (my first impression), or the Windows 7 upgrade path is simply the victim of poor product management - I'm going with the latter, for now.

Either way, I must say that so far, I quite like Windows 7. There are a couple of minor things that I miss from XP, but overall, its a solid update to a solid line.