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Thumbing Windows 7 onto Netbooks

Microsoft may sell Windows 7 on a thumb drive in order to allow Netbook owners to upgrade to the new version of the operating system, CNET News has learned.

Microsoft has shown Windows 7 running on Netbooks ever since it introduced the operating system last fall. However, helping consumers get it on their notebooks has proven more tricky. Ina Fried/CNET

Microsoft is considering offering Windows 7 on a thumb drive to allow Netbook owners to more easily upgrade their machines, a source tells CNET News.

The move, which is still under consideration, is one of several things Microsoft has looked at to try to make it convenient to upgrade machines that don't come with a CD or DVD drives.

Microsoft executives have said that they recognize that upgrading Netbooks poses a challenge and are exploring ways that the company can make it easier. In an interview on Thursday, Senior Vice President Bill Veghte said that Microsoft had nothing to announce on that front.

The challenge of getting Windows 7 on to older Netbooks threatens to cast a shadow over the technical work Microsoft did to get Windows 7 running on Netbooks. Its predecessor, Windows Vista, proved ill-suited to Netbooks forcing Microsoft to continue selling Windows XP as its answer to the low-cost notebook phenomenon.

Although a USB flash drive could offer the simplest way to move a Netbook to Windows 7, there are other options. Buyers with an external drive could hook up that to their Netbook, while another option would be an upgrade through a service such as Best Buy's Geek Squad. Microsoft also sells a downloadable version of Windows today, so, in theory it could do the same with Windows 7, allowing buyers to put the OS on their own thumb drive.

Matt Bonin, a merchant director at Best Buy, said this week that the company is aiming to work with Geek Squad to develop services to streamline Windows 7 upgrades. As for Netbooks, he said the company recognizes the challenge they present and said the store already offers services to load other types of software, such as antivirus programs.

Complicating matters further is the fact that most Netbooks are running Windows XP. Those moving from Windows XP can buy an upgrade version of the software, but must back up their data, do a clean installation of the operating system and then reload their applications.

The same goes for all XP owners, as well as users looking to move from a higher-end version of Vista to a lower-end version of Windows 7 and all users in Europe trying to upgrade to Windows 7 using the browser-less "E" version--the only one Microsoft plans to offer there.