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Windows 7 Family Pack offer: 'ended' or 'sold out'?

Last week, would-be Windows 7 upgraders noticed that the discounted Family Pack upgrade boxes had all but disappeared from store shelves and online inventories. Is the deal gone for good, or will it return after the New Year? Microsoft's marketing messages are so confused I'm not sure they even know what's coming up next. I'd love to find out who's in charge, so I can ask what on earth they're thinking.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor on

When it announced its plan to offer a Family Pack upgrade for Windows 7 (three Home Premium licenses at a drastic discount), Microsoft said it would be a "limited time offer." Last week, less than six weeks after it went on sale, online sources of the retail packaged product started disappearing. Is it gone for good?

I've asked Microsoft repeatedly for comment and received only this terse statement in response:

The Windows 7 Family Pack was introduced as a limited time offer while supplies last in select geographies. Response has been very positive and in some cases, the offer has sold out. Customers interested in upgrading their PCs should purchase Home Premium, Professional or Ultimate upgrade products.

My blogging colleague Mary Jo Foley thinks that the Family Pack offer might come back. I'm not sure what to think.

Historically, this sort of deal doesn't come back. Microsoft offered a "screaming deal" on Windows 7 upgrades for two weeks in late June and early July, right after the product was released to manufacturing. That half-price offer was well received by beta testers and early adopters, but there's no sign it's returning. Similarly, when Microsoft offered a Family Pack for Vista (same name, very different offer), the deal lasted for a few months and then disappeared, never to be seen again.

And now, just to confuse customers and analysts a little more, Microsoft has subtly tweaked the wording on its web page for the Family Pack SKU. This morning, the page said "The Windows 7 Family Pack offer has ended." A few hours later, it was tweaked to read, "The Windows 7 Family Pack is now sold out through many of our partners."

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If you're a glass-half-full sort, you could take that subtle change in wording as a sign that the Family Pack is poised to make a comeback sometime next year. The glass-half-empty crowd can interpret it as Microsoft's way of emphasizing that the deal is absolutely, positively over: "No more copies in the warehouse, sorry." I take it as a sign that the Windows marketing team doesn't have a clue about what it wants to do, and its fragmented, contradictory messaging is a sign of its internal confusion. How clueless is their communication strategy? I can't even find out which executive is responsible for the decision so I can ask what on earth they're thinking and make a pitch on behalf of the Windows community. (If anyone at Microsoft wants to 'fess up, you know how to reach me.)

The oddest thing about this whole situation is that Microsoft is treating the Family Pack as a temporary price cut rather than as a product that meets a distinct need for its customers. Look, multi-PC households are common, and the Family Pack is already well accepted. Microsoft doesn't call its Office Home and Student product a Family Pack, but every copy comes with the right to install it on three PCs in a single household, just like the Windows 7 Family Pack. And of course, Apple has validated the category with its $199, five-copies-per-household OS X Family Pack, which it reduced to $49 for Snow Leopard.

It's really short-sighted for Microsoft to discourage consumers from upgrading as many of their household PCs as possible to Windows 7. Many of the consumer features of new OS (especially the HomeGroup feature and Play To media streaming) work best when Windows 7 is running on multiple PCs in a home network. A household with three Windows 7 PCs is going to be able to do a lot more interesting and fun things than one with a single Windows 7 PC and two others running Vista or XP. That interesting/fun experience translates into positive word of mouth, which means more upgraders in more households.

In this economy, at a cost of $120 per upgrade, I am certain that many heads of multi-PC households will choose to move only one PC to Windows 7 (by buying a retail box or getting Windows 7 preinstalled on a new PC). I'm equally certain that many if not most of them would jump at the three-copies-for-$150 Family Pack deal if it returned. When I pencil it out on the back of an envelope, bringing back the Family Pack means everyone wins: Microsoft gets more money from those incremental upgrades on PCs that might otherwise have stuck with XP. Its customers are happier, and they tell their friends. And Apple has one less item on its list of anti-Windows talking points.

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