PC makers find ways to extend XP's life

There will be big-name XP computers sold after June 30. Technically, they won't actually be XP machines. They'll be "pre-downgraded" Vista machines.

Facing a June 30 deadline to stop selling PCs with Windows XP, the world's largest computer makers are getting creative.

Taking advantage of the "downgrade rights" offered as part of the Windows Vista license agreement, Hewlett-Packard and Dell both plan to offer machines loaded with XP well beyond June.

Technically, the computers will be Vista Business or Vista Ultimate machines that have been factory downgraded to XP at the customer's request. In practice, they are more like XP machines that come with an already paid-for upgrade to Vista when and if the customer chooses to do so.

HP said it plans to continue selling the "pre-downgraded" desktops, notebooks, and workstations to its business customers until July 30, 2009. Dell is already pitching the same option on its Web site and promising the models will stick around long after it stops taking standard XP orders on June 18. Other computer makers tell CNET they are still exploring what to do but also want to sell XP beyond June 30.

There are limits to the approach being taken by HP and Dell. Only the Business and Ultimate flavors of Vista come with downgrade rights, meaning consumer machines can't be sold in a similar fashion.

While companies can offer pre-downgraded machines via their Web site, things get a little more complicated when it comes to buying a PC at retail stores. It may be possible for customers to buy such a machine, but just how this will work--and if stores will offer such an option--is not totally clear. The tricky issue is that, to stay within Microsoft's terms, the customer has to somehow "request" the XP downgrade.

All of this prompts the real question: Why won't Microsoft just extend the deadline? The company's rationale that customers and computer makers aren't demanding a longer life for XP seems to be increasingly implausible.

Kevin Kutz, a director in Microsoft's Windows unit, said that the downgrade-rights option meets customer needs.

"While (computer makers) continue to see large numbers of customers making the transition to Windows Vista, there are some pockets--like small business--that need a little more time," Kutz said in a statement. "And from what we've heard from our partners, the downgrade rights option fulfills that need."

The pre-downgraded PC option is just the latest way that PC makers have responded to stronger-than-expected demand. After shifting largely to Vista after its January 2007 mainstream launch, Dell and others quickly began adding more XP options in response to customer requests.

For some time now, computer makers have been selling machines with an XP recovery disc as a downgrade option.

Lenovo, for example, plans to keep offering an XP recovery disc with some Vista models through January 2009, according to InformationWeek.

The latest twist is the machines, like the ones HP and Dell will sell beyond June 30, that have Vista rights but contain XP pre-installed.

As for whether a broader reprieve might yet come for XP, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has left the door open a crack.

"XP will hit an end-of-life," Ballmer said in Belgium recently, according to Reuters. "We have announced one. If customer feedback varies, we can always wake up smarter, but right now, we have a plan for end-of-life for new XP shipments."

CNET's Erica Ogg contributed to this report.