UPDATE: Windows Vista Express Upgrades could begin shipping next week

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UPDATE: Windows Vista Express Upgrades could begin shipping next week

Chicago (IL) – If you purchased a PC before January 30 and took advantage of the Vista Express Upgrade program, you know by now that this program is everything else but “Express”. In fact, three of the five largest PC vendors in the U.S. have confirmed to TG Daily that – almost four weeks after the launch of the OS – no Vista Express Upgrades have shipped to their customers yet.

The Vista Express upgrade program appears to be causing headaches in all links that are involved in the supply chain – Microsoft’s chosen upgrade provider ModusLink, PC vendors and consumers. Ken Walker, as senior director responsible for the Vista rollout at Gateway, told TG daily in a conversation today that “probably no Vista Express Upgrades have been delivered to PC buyers yet.” This assumption was confirmed to TG Daily by two other large U.S. PC vendors.

The Vista Express Upgrade program was put in place by Microsoft to make the new operating system part of the Christmas buying season, while the actual software was not released until January 30 of this year. Most new PCs purchased during the holiday season qualified for this “Express Upgrade,” which promised consumers – depending on the PC manufacturer – a convenient and free (or fairly cheap) upgrade to the new operating system.

Microsoft determined the rules of the upgrade, with the idea to outsource every step of the upgrade process to the PC vendor and the infrastructure provider ModusLink, which handles the sign-up and shipping of Vista Express Upgrades worldwide. In order to get the upgrade, PC buyers who qualify for the upgrade need to sign up online in what often has been described as a complicated and tiring process that could take more than 30 minutes to complete.

Recently, we have been getting emails from readers who told us that they have not yet received their Vista upgrade. It is quite apparent that users are getting increasingly frustrated in a situation where they expected to have a product on their doorstep on January 30 and it still has not arrived. The first assumption, of course, is that there is a hiccup or a delay in the supply chain, which, however, is not the case.

In fact, we were told by Walker that the Express Upgrade sign-up form states in the fine print that users should expect to see their Vista upgrade in the mail about eight to ten weeksafter retail availability of Vista. According to Walker, a substantial number of users have not noticed this fine print and begin shelling Gateway with questions about this issue – which, in the end, cannot be resolved by the PC vendor alone.

Here’s why: When the Express Upgrade finally reaches the customer, it typically will consist of a regular Windows Vista copy as well as a companion CD that contains certain upgrades that need to go along with Vista on a specific PC. Walker told us that the Gateway companion CD will ensure core functionality of a system as well as Internet connectivity, which will allow consumers to download driver updates for their computer. For example, these CDs will include BIOS updates especially for lower end systems with 512 MB main memory and shared memory graphics cards (to limit the graphics memory to 64 MB and allow Vista to actually boot.)

Technically, all Vista CDs are identical and only the product key decides which version if Vista is installed. The 5×5 character product key decides whether Vista Basis or Ultimate is installed and whether it will be installed as an upgrade or a full version of the operating system. The fact that BIOS upgrades are required for some computer systems also is the reason why there is an actual difference between a Windows Vista that comes pre-installed with a PC and the upgrade DVD: While the OEM version of Vista will be tied to the BIOS of a PC, the upgrade will not include a “BIOS lock.”

So, why is it exactly that the Express Upgrades won’t be shipping until two months after Vista launch? According to Walker, there apparently never has been a question about the delivery date of the media, as it was clear at least to Microsoft, ModusLink and vendors all along that these upgrades would eight to ten weeks after Vista launch. In that view, the supply chain is still on track and while Walker did not comment on the progress of other PC vendors, he said that “if everything worked perfect to create the companion CD,” first PC users could be seeing upgrade CDs in their mail by next week.

The true problem with the Vista Express Upgrade, however, appears to be a lack of communication between Microsoft, ModusLink, PC vendors and buyers. Beginning with the fact that Microsoft calls this program “Express Upgrade,” to the bottlenecks at ModusLink and to the lack of information on PC vendor sites, the program apparently has not been going as well as Microsoft promised. Interestingly, Gateway confirmed that the firm’s companion master CD is being finalized just now and will shipped to ModusLink within three to four days. This may seem a bit late, but in the light of the eight-to-ten-week shipment time frame of the upgrade packages, the company argues that it is well on track.

Walker declined to put the blame for the late deliveries of the upgrades on a single source or company, but mentioned that “we all fell down a bit.” He described the transition to Vista as the most significant update since Windows 95 and said that the industry probably became somewhat “complacent” about the fact that PCs are easy to use. “Sometimes,” he said, “this upgrade process is rocket science.”

In our conversation, Walker pointed to two key problem areas that would have needed improvement in the Vista upgrade process. First, he believes that the communications process in the supply chain as well as the communication to the customer raised expectations, which the products and companies were not able to keep. “If we explain to people that it takes time to get something from A to B, I’m sure they would understand. But we did not communicate this message properly.”

The second area that could see improvement, in Walkers opinion, focused on the supply chain management firm ModusLink. “The sign-up process brought a lot of challenges and frustration,” he said.

Strangely, Microsoft relies on ModusLink as the only company to handle the upgrade process, perhaps in the hopes to cut redundancies and channel all requests through one streamlined system. However, this did not only put all OEMs at ModusLink’s mercy, Walker said, the online sign-up was also overwhelmed at times and simply broke down. “It has happened time and time again, and sometimes not because of really logical reasons,” he said. A particular problem appeared to be the slow speed and insufficient navigation of the sign-up site, which caused users to use the “back” and “forward” buttons of their browsers – which deleted previously entered data and locked users out of the sign-up process as an application for the upgrade is a one-time deal. “We contacted ModusLink in these cases and it often took between 24 and 72 hours, until users were able to re-apply for the upgrade,” Walker said.

With these experiences made, Walker feels that a “more robust sign-up process” should have been put into place and alternative sign-up methods, perhaps postcards, would have been a good idea. “We understand the frustration customers feel and we know how annoying this sign-process can be,” Walker said.

Microsoft so far has not commented on the status of the Express Upgrade program, but the firm told us that the Vista Express upgrade program was designed as an “OEM fulfillment program” which did not require the participation of Microsoft itself.

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