Downgrading Windows: How low can you go?

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.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

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?

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.

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