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Just when you thought it was safe to talk to your customers about operating systems again, here comes the hangover from the unpopularity of Windows Vista.

Microsoft’s maligned operating system was so unpopular with users that many downgraded from it to the previous OS, Windows XP.

But that simple move to stay with the older OS may now thwart sales of Microsoft Windows 7. That’s because those who downgraded to Windows XP will not have an easy move to Windows 7, and that could initially hurt sales of the new OS.

Windows Vista users can simply upgrade to Windows 7. However, Windows XP users must do a fresh install of the new operating system, a more labor-intensive and time-consuming process that some say may turn users off from upgrading anytime soon.

Users like their systems the way they are, with all their favorites and icons and data just where they want it, says George Worthington, president of Computer Force in Warminster, Pa.  

For users who are upgrading from Vista, Worthington says he can simply give them the disk and have them do it themselves, keeping all their old settings. For those moving from XP, data must be backed up, favorites must be saved and Windows 7 must be installed as new, and then all the data must be loaded back on the system.  

Worthington, who says his company makes 90 percent of its profit from services, doesn’t mind the extra work. But he says the complexity and downtime have the potential to turn off users who prefer not to have their workday disrupted by that kind of downtime.

“I have about 500 end users who this will affect,” he says. “We won’t get many sales.”

Worthington adds that about 75 percent of his customers who call now asking about new systems still say they want Windows XP instead of Windows 7.

Industry analyst Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, estimates that 90 percent of the systems that have been sold into business in recent years have been downgraded to Windows XP.

“Actually, this was very common,” he says. “Vista didn’t move well in business, and the vast majority of new systems that went into business in the last two years were XP-based and not Vista-based.”

Part of the reason Microsoft’s maligned operating system was unpopular with many users was because it couldn’t run some of their older applications. Microsoft’s Windows 7, however, runs an XP Mode that is designed to now run those older applications, thereby removing the complaints people had with Vista.

But for many businesses, the upgrade headaches for a software move from XP to Windows 7 won’t matter, according to Enderle. That’s because they prefer to upgrade the hardware and software at the same time, and right now they still don’t have the money for it.

“They would generally rather roll out new operating systems with new hardware and a new version of Office and updated applications,” Enderle says. “Even if they hadn’t been downgraded, the lack of money for hardware and Office 2010 due next year would delay deployments until the money and new version of Office were ready,” says Enderle.