Microsoft brings back Windows 7 Family Pack -- that's three Home Premium licenses for $150

As marketing tactics go, Microsoft's Windows 7 Family Pack revival is shrewdly timed. That's right, Family Pack is back -- and for a limited time. According to Microsoft's Windows Blog, "while supplies last," whatever that means. Microsoft is drumming the public relations ahead of October 22nd global availability, when consumers can grab a box with three Windows 7 Home Premium licenses for about 150 bucks. The software deal already is available in the United States direct from Microsoft or from "select" retailers.

The reasons aren't rocket science for the timing, one of which Microsoft's blog post hints at -- Windows Live Essentials 2011, which officially released late last week. "Upgrading to Windows 7 from Windows XP also lets you take advantage to one of all the benefits of the new Windows Live Essentials 2011," Ashley Brown blogs. "Windows Live Essentials is a free suite of software designed to complete your Windows 7 experience." It's a marketing pitch but also an admission: Windows Live Essentials 2011 requires Windows 7 or Vista. XP users aren't allowed.

The new Essentials is really about Windows 7, but the majority of PCs run Windows XP, and as Betanews and others in the industry have noted, the XP-to-7 upgrade process can be painful (users must backup XP files, clean install Windows 7 and restore files to the new operating system). If Microsoft wants big numbers of Essentials downloads (for free software), more customers need to be running Windows 7 (or Vista); hence, one reason for the promotion's timing.

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"Windows Live Essentials needs to find some way to connect with consumers as they are revisting their computer presence," Stephen Baker, NPD's vice president of industry analysis told me this morning,. I'll add something else: Microsoft needs to extend the Windows 7 experience with add-ons it no longer includes in the box. I'm convinced that if not for Microsoft's antitrust troubles on two continents, the features included in Windows Live Essentials -- and more -- would be included with the operating system.

I see Windows Phone 7, which is scheduled to launch one week from today, to be another reason for the promotion. Baker disagreed. "I don't think the Windows Phone is at all related." In the larger scheme of sales, he's probably right. But from a marketing perspective I see purpose, particularly now with Windows Phone 7 Microsoft will finally have a complete three-screen strategy. The company has talked three screens -- PCs, TVs and cell phones -- for years, but with one of them sorely missing.

Early holiday sales is another reason for the promotion's timing. I asked Baker about that. It's "obviously timed for the holidays," he agreed. "They need to keep the momentum on Windows 7 upgrades going." However, Baker questions how many more software upgrades Microsoft can squeeze out of the huge Windows XP install base and smaller Vista one. "It is good but I think I would prefer to see them deliver more focus against Windows 7 PCs. The need is still to upgrade XP machines and that is a hardware play. While I am sure that there are still Vista dominated households out there obviously a lot fewer than there were at launch."

That said, there's reasonable question to ask: Will Windows 7 Family Pack even be available for the holidays? Microsoft introduced the software for Windows 7's launch, which perhaps not coincidentally was Oct. 22, 2009. So-o-o-o-o, one year later, the Family Pack returns, setting the stage for the same early exit. Microsoft sold out -- I say pulled -- the software at the start of last year's holiday sales season. "I've got a new spelling for 'Scrooge.' M-i-c-r-o-s-o-f-t," I blogged on Dec. 5, 2009. The point: Do take that "while supplies last" seriously.

Countries where the Family Pack will be available, according to Microsoft:

United States, Canada, UK, France, Germany, China, Russia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Australia, Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Romania and Ukraine.

I would be remiss if writing about Microsoft without mentioning Apple; otherwise what would some Betanews commenters have to scold me about? Apple offers many Family Packs -- iLife, iWork and Mac OS X, for example. The Mac OS X 10.6 (aka "Snow Leopard") Family Pack upgrade is a helluva bargain at $49 for five licenses and no product activation required. That makes Snow Leopard Family Pack a much better bargain for Mac owners moving from Leopard (which is comparable to Vista upgraders going to Windows 7). That said, Snow Leopard appears to be more anomaly pricing. There are indications that Apple will raise pricing to pre-Mac OS X 10.6 Family Pack pricing when the next version releases.

As for Windows 7 Family Pack's revival, limited time is simply too limited for some Microsoft customers. In comments to my late-December 2009 post "Hey, Microsoft, Betanews readers have some 2010 advice for you," Robert Kegel wrote: "MS has to bring back the Windows Family Pack for good. This should be something they shouldn't have gotten rid of in the first place. It doesn't have to be any cheaper than it was, but it should be brought back for good."

Do you agree? Should Microsoft bring back the Family Pack for good? Please answer in comments.

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