Windows 7 customers still paying for Microsoft's Ultimate mistakes

Over the past few years, I've criticized Microsoft for its "irrational" Windows pricing. That's especially true for Ultimate edition, which was your only choice if you wanted certain combinations of Windows Vista features, like Media Center and Complete PC Backup. Now, as Windows 7 approaches its official launch date, will Vista Ultimate users get another gouging? Or is Microsoft getting ready to unveil another "special deal"?

Three years ago, when Microsoft was in the final stages of getting Windows Vista ready for its launch, I looked at the official price tag for Vista Ultimate edition and concluded:

“Yes, Microsoft really is price-gouging…. anyone who’s eyeing Vista Ultimate has every right to feel like they’re being ripped off.”

And even when Microsoft slashed Windows Vista prices last year, I still found them “higher than any sane person would pay.” That was especially true for Ultimate edition, which was your only choice if you wanted certain combinations of features, like Media Center and Complete PC Backup.

Now, as Windows 7 approaches its official launch date, will Vista Ultimate users get another gouging? Or is Microsoft getting ready to unveil another "special deal"?

Earlier this summer, Microsoft announced special limited-time Windows 7 upgrade pricing deals, with Home Premium going for $50 and Professional edition offered for $100. So where was the special upgrade offer for Ultimate edition? A complete no-show. So far, at least, the cheapest option for upgrading to Windows 7 Ultimate is $220, which is the estimated selling price for an upgrade package.

With Windows 7, Microsoft is trying to do a complete U-turn on its messaging for the Ultimate edition, downplaying its importance in the lineup. The advanced feature set has been redistributed more reasonably, making Windows 7 Home Premium a perfectly good choice for most consumers and Windows 7 Professional a worthwhile substitute for Vista Ultimate (the only thing it’s missing is BitLocker and language packs). If you paid top dollar for Vista Ultimate because it was your only option, Microsoft says you can probably choose a less expensive Windows 7 edition.

Ah, but downgrading from Vista Ultimate to a lesser edition isn’t a supported option, and as far as I know there isn't a hack to make this sort of in-place downgrade possible. So if you want to save a few bucks you'll need to spend some extra time doing a custom install, transferring your data and settings, and then reinstalling your programs. That’s not necessarily painful, but it is tedious—requiring an afternoon or a full evening even if you’re the organized sort. By contrast, an in-place upgrade from Vista Ultimate to Windows 7 Ultimate (the only supported path) takes an hour or so and is pretty much seamless.

Probably the biggest mistake Microsoft made with Vista was in setting unrealistic expectations for Ultimate Extras. I’m sure the Windows 7 team cringes every time they’re reminded of the puffery and promises their predecessors made about what turned out to be an Ultimate Embarrassment. Over the past few years, Microsoft has tried to stuff those references to “cutting-edge programs [and] innovative services” down the memory hole. Indeed, they’ve shut down the Secure Online Key Backup service that was one of the signature Ultimate Extras, and the handful of games that made it to Windows Update don’t survive an upgrade to Windows 7. (Ouch.)

I’ve heard whispers that Microsoft is planning to offer a Windows 7 Ultimate upgrade deal, similar to the discounts it offered earlier in the summer for Home Premium and Professional. I hope those rumors are true and not just wishful thinking. Offering a fair Windows 7 price for Windows Vista Ultimate users would take much of the sting out of the upgrade process for some of the company's most loyal customers.