Downgrading Windows: How low can you go?

Downgrading Windows: How low can you go?

Summary: It might come as no surprise that you can downgrade your Microsoft operating system one level, from Windows 8.x to Windows 7, for example, but did you know that you can limbo all the way down to Windows 95? You can.


While researching information for another article, I ran across a real gem on Microsoft's web site: a document titled, "Downgrade rights for Microsoft Volume Licensing, OEM, and full-package product licenses." As you can see in Figure 1 below, you may downgrade your desktop operating system to Windows NT 3.51 or to Windows 95 and every operating system since, from Microsoft's latest Windows 8.1 flagship. The big question is, "Why would you want to"? The answers to that simple question are far more interesting than the question itself. Microsoft has set the bar pretty low on this one.

But before I analyze the fascinating possibilities of this self-created loophole, allow me a momentary tangential pursuit. What if other products had this same downgrade capability? The most obvious one that comes to mind is automobiles. It would be cool if Chevrolet did this. I could buy a new Corvette and immediately downgrade it to a 1965 427ci, 4-speed, convertible, real metal awesome ride.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Downgrade matrix for Windows 8.1


OK, so there aren't that many examples where the downgraded version is that much cooler than the new purchase. The Corvette example works.

In the case of purchasing a new Canon T5i digital camera, I wouldn't want to downgrade to a Canon AE-1. I love my Canon AE-1 that I bought in 1983 but, let's be realistic, that's not a good trade.

However, in the case of certain operating systems (namely, Windows 8.x), one could effectively argue the point that a "downgrade" to Windows 7 is a good trade. Extended support for Windows 7 stretches out to January 2020. That means you could use Windows 7 for the next five-and-a-half years, which gives Microsoft enough time to come up with something a bit more palatable to the masses and businesses.

Honestly, I don't know of too many businesses that wouldn't appreciate the ability to make that trade. That is unless business owners want to convert all desktop hardware to Surfaces or touch screen computers. Sure, it's possible but expensive. It's less expensive and more sensible to make that downgrade.

A funny side note is that Windows Vista is a downgrade option. Seriously Microsoft, trading one Corvette for another is one thing but trading a Corvette for a Chevette is quite another. And a broken Chevette at that.

Sorry, I digressed from my already-in-progress tangent.

The document's latest update was March 2014. That means that Microsoft's much loved Windows XP was one month away from being mothballed — at least in theory it was one month away from being mothballed. Customers had other ideas.

And how long has Windows 95 and Windows NT 3.51 been out of production support?

Do you see my point here?

If you decide to not support an operating system, as Microsoft has, why would you allow customers, especially Volume License customers, to downgrade to non-supported operating systems?

Windows 7 and even Windows Vista, I can see, because they're still supported but anything older and unsupported isn't just unwise, it's downright silly.

For example, I could purchase 100 brand new HP laptops, fresh from the factory with pre-installed Windows 8.1 on them, and because I'm a Volume License customer, I could instruct my IT department to reimage those 100 systems with Windows 95. 

Or, because I'm a Volume License customer, could I demand that HP preinstall Windows Vista on them instead of Windows 8.1?

Great Debate:

Can Windows 8 be saved?

Can Windows 8 be saved?

Windows 8 was a bold bet by Microsoft to link PC, tablet and phone interfaces. Is it too soon to say the bet flopped?

Yes, I'm being purposely facetious to prove a point. I'd never install Vista on anything that I didn't want thrown back at me. But I could do it according to the downgrade document.

I believe that companies will exercise this option to avoid moving to Windows 8.x. I feel that there are too many people who just aren't comfortable with Windows 8's interface, lack of a Start button, and the feeling of unfamiliarity that Windows 8.x has. I've gone back and forth on Windows 8 myself. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I hate it, and sometimes I think that I'm glad I switched to a Mac for my primary personal computer.

No, Windows 8.x isn't the first operating system to offer downgrades. They all have. I can remember back when Vista first hit the market. Users could downgrade to Windows XP. I advised as many as I possibly could to do so.

If you haven't yet gleaned the answer to the question posed in the first paragraph, "Why would you want to?,"

  • Windows 8.x isn't ready for prime time business.
  • Earlier versions of Windows are more user friendly.
  • Users want to remain productive.
  • Businesses don't want or need disruptive work environments.
  • Earlier Windows versions are now "off the radar" for hackers and malware writers.
  • Older versions require less hardware.
  • The price to upgrade is too high.
  • Not everyone wants to use a touch screen.

I think that Windows 8 was a nice try for Microsoft. And maybe it will work out in the long term. But in the short term, Windows 8 is a fail. Many companies and individuals will continue to use Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 before making the leap into the newer Metro-ized desktop systems.

I'd like to know how many Microsoft employees use Windows 8.x as opposed to how many have stayed with versions 7 and older. It wouldn't surprise me to find that at least 60 percent still use an older version. At one time, I heard that a large number of Microsoft employees used Linux, but I never verified that claim.

Any Microsoft employees want to participate in an interview with me? I won't reveal your identity, if you choose to do so.

What do you think of the downgrade options for operating systems? Would you exercise your right, use what's installed on your systems, or even chance a mass conversion to Windows 8.x? Talk back and let me know.

Related Stories:

Topics: Windows, Enterprise Software, Microsoft, Operating Systems


Kenneth 'Ken' Hess is a full-time Windows and Linux system administrator with 20 years of experience with Mac, Linux, UNIX, and Windows systems in large multi-data center environments.

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  • Downgrade to Win 95

    Maybe in theory... but in practice I doubt Win 95 has the drivers to install on anything but a WM these days.
    • That

      and good luck with their browser... 99.9% of any surfing will be dead!
      • It isn't about surfing

        it is about custom applications that won't run on anything newer.
    • Probably at least go with 95OSR2.

      But on the other hand, you'd be better of with 98SE, or even ME, for that matter. On another note, I saw someone take a ASUS netbook from DOS/3.1 all the way to 7 on YouTube.
      Richard Estes
  • A charity is using that loophole

    “The charity's global chief information officer Mark Banbury told The Reg his org will accept the Windows 8.1 freebie – and exploit a clause in the licence to downgrade (or upgrade depending on your point of view) to Windows 7 rather than settle with version 8.1.”

    Charity: Ta for the free Win 8.1, Microsoft – we'll use it to install Win 7
    • Don't spam unrelated articles.

    • Not really a loophole, daikon. It's called an "allowance".

      "But, we're told, there will be a mix of Windows 7 and Windows 8 machines within the Plan"

      And MS could easily not give them Windows 7, or just remove the "loophole" as you want to call it.

      Nice try daikon, but what's even more interesting is that given the choice between free Windows, and free Linux, they took Windows.
      • @William

        Where did I write anything about Linux?
        • William is just shilling.

          Got's ta defends his masters.
          NoMore MicrosoftEver
          • So Are You, ABMer.

            Defend your own tech, don't piss on someone elses.
  • You can't always instruct an OEM

    Not all OEM's will downgrade to Vista (very few will, in fact). Microsoft limits what an OEM will install for you, and as always, it's up to the OEM to have driver support for their hardware. If there is no driver support for the components for the requested OS, the OEM can just decline it.
    • Usually

      the OEM will install Windows 7 or Windows 8 on the machine. They can't install anything older for you, they aren't allowed to. The exception is for larger customers, where the customer provides their own corporate image, which the OEM will then put onto the drive.

      The downgrade rights here are for the Enterprise volume licensing, not retail packages. That has the prerequisite that the PC has a valid Windows 7/8 licence to start with and the corporate can then use their software library to install any previous version of Windows, back to 95/NT 3.51.

      In such cases, it is also up to the corporate to ensure that the hardware will work with the version they want to use. The manufacturer won't be providing drivers for unsupported versions of Windows.
      • In essence

        The volume licensing covers all - selected - PC's the company wants. This includes machines from the oldest to the newest and the downgrade means that the IT may install the version a particular PC is able to run and the company's policy enables.

        In essence this volume licensing is an enabler for the company to use that many licenses that the contract covers with the OS what is important for that usage and for the capability if there is no such constraint.

        Gyorgy Kenez
  • This should only be done

    if you are not yet in the transition to the next OS, but you (as a company) should be planning for future transitions to the next OS. Staying on XP (or any previous version) is not in one's best interest in the long term (or even the short term at this point).

    It is probably difficult to get Win95 installed (you have to have the media for it, and they only have the previous version, not all the previous ones, available for download), and then drivers are an issue (even for Windows XP at this point). New computers are using new processors, chipsets, video cards, etc. that will never have drivers for old OSes.
    • Ken seems to not understand

      the corporate culture. Most companies at thist stage will be using Windows 8 or downgrading to 7. A few are still on XP for the majority of their desktops. But that isn't the point.

      Many corporates have 1 or 2 applications somewhere out there that were written in the 80s or 90s for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to do one or two specific tasks. This software often won't run on anything newer than Windows 95, which is why they still need the rights to run on that old version.

      Luckily Window 9x needs little in the way of drivers - it is probably easier to install on modern hardware than XP. It doesn't need disk drivers etc. so there should be fewer problems with SATA than XP makes. The same for video, the standard VGA and SVGA drivers will probably still work, which will probably be enough to keep that old application limping along.

      My previous employer had a couple of 95 machines tucked away in a lab for running certain measuring equipment and another for driving the colour litho press. Both could have been replaced by more modern equipment and more modern software on an actual OS, but that would have costs hundreds of thousands of Euros and they weren't prepared to invest in that as long as the equipment was still working reliably; so we had to keep those old 95 installations limping along.
  • An interesting discount mechanism

    Windows 8 is readily available cheaper than Windows 7

    Which makes the cheapest way to get Windows 7, to buy Windows 8 and upgrade down to 7.

    Sorry, but I can't bring myself to call that a downgrade. Not in this case.
    Henry 3 Dogg
    • Not for Retail Customers

      “There are no downgrade rights for retail versions of Windows 8.”

  • Who has a Win 95 image lying around?

    When 95 was still in use disk images didn't exist yet. The technology hadn't been invented yet.
    • I think he meant "media" in the install CD. And sub "install" for "re image."

      I have tons of win 95, 95b/98 and XP still laying around here somewhere. Last I saw I have one Vista upgrade disk, too.
      • @harry_dyke and @pgit

        Re-image means to wipe and re-install. However, it's not true that disk images didn't exist in 1995. We used a product called Ghost to create disk images that we used to re-image systems using a network boot disk.