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More on Windows 7's 'XP Mode'

Microsoft offers more details on how it will use virtualization to try to combat a perceived Vista shortcoming--its lack of compatibility with software written for older versions of the OS.

Microsoft on Tuesday offered up a few more details on its once-secretive project to use virtualization to offer an "XP Mode" for Windows 7.

As noted on Friday, Microsoft is using its Virtual PC technology to allow Windows 7 users to run programs that work in Windows XP but not in Windows Vista. On Tuesday, it noted some more of the fine print regarding the product.

As far as technical requirements, XP Mode needs a beefier system than that required to just run Windows 7 or XP alone, including at least 2GB of memory and a system that has chip-level virtualization from either Intel or AMD. One of the challenges is that today it is often not that easy to tell whether one's PC has such support.

A screenshot of Windows 7's XP Mode, which allows programs designed for Windows XP to run inside a virtual machine within Windows 7. Microsoft

"Some PCs have it and some don't," said Scott Woodgate, a director in the Windows unit. "It's not as clear as it should be relative to which PCs have (hardware-based virtualization) support and which don't."

At its core, XP mode consists of two things, the Windows Virtual PC engine and a licensed copy of Windows XP Service Pack 3 as a packaged virtual machine. Although neither piece will be included in the Windows 7 box, XP Mode will be a free download for those who have a license to Windows 7 Professional, Windows 7 Enterprise, or Windows 7 Ultimate.

Microsoft is aiming XP Mode primarily at small businesses, Woodgate said."That's a class of customers that may have Windows XP apps that they may want to run on Windows 7," he said.

Larger businesses may also have need to run older applications, but typically want control over things like who can install programs on their machines and other management issues. For them, he said, Microsoft has a product called MED-V that allows such control. An updated version of MED-V, due to be in beta within 90 days of the launch of Windows 7, will add support for Windows 7's XP Mode, he said.

One of the benefits of XP Mode over Microsoft's existing virtualization products is the fact that, after a setup process, the Windows XP virtual machine runs in the background so users don't have to manage multiple desktops. XP Mode automatically installs shortcuts for XP programs in the Windows 7 start menu. The experience from that point on is similar to the one offered by VMware's Fusion and Parallels in their virtualization products.

Woodgate noted that XP Mode isn't a security solution. Indeed, to protect their systems, users will need antivirus software running both on their Windows 7 desktop as well as a copy running inside their Windows XP virtual machine.

The beta version of XP Mode is debuting alongside the Windows 7 Release Candidate that is going to developers this week and being made publicly available on May 5. Microsoft said a final release will depend on the feedback to the beta, but Woodgate said Microsoft hopes it can be ready for download at the same time Windows 7 is made broadly available.

Microsoft has been working on the XP Mode as long as it has been developing Windows 7, and Woodgate said even he is surprised it stayed secret for so long.

The existence of XP Mode emerged on an enthusiast site on Friday, later confirmed by CNET sources, and then through an official company blog post.