By Jon Fortt
October 15, 2009

Rewind three years. One of the harbingers of doom for Windows Vista, Microsoft’s much-maligned operating system, was a survey that showed half of corporate PCs were too old or anemic to upgrade from XP to Vista. In other words, to get the new software, companies would have to spend a fortune on new computers.

Most never made the upgrade: 92% of PCs in the United States and Canada are still running XP, according to Softchoice, an IT consulting firm.

So it’s a good omen that Softchoice, the same firm that issued that fateful Vista study, is singing a very different tune about Windows 7. This time, its survey of 450,000 corporate PCs in the U.S. and Canada shows that 88% can handle the upgrade.

That matters because with today’s tight IT budgets, some companies will look to install Windows 7 on PCs they already own rather than buy new ones.

“Corporations, more now than ever, are trying to stretch a buck,” says Dean Williams, services development manager for Softchoice. And this time, they can. “Hardware requirements are not nearly the issue that they were three years ago when Vista was launched – it’s like night and day, really.”

Stats like this are fueling optimism in the tech world, since a popular new Microsoft (MSFT) OS can jump-start sales of other gear and services. Softchoice is among the hopeful: it offers software that helps companies plan their OS upgrades, and this survey seems to indicate that there’s demand for its services.

PC industry titans expect healthy sales of new Windows 7 PCs, too. Intel (INTC) CEO Paul Otellini said this week that the new OS has inspired some big companies to look at buying PCs again. Todd Bradley, executive vice president of Hewlett-Packard’s (HPQ) PC group, told Fortune last week that he expects Windows 7 to help retail sales this holiday season.

But for the tech industry, here’s the best Windows 7 stat of all: the average corporate PC is now four or five years old, since companies have delayed purchases in a down economy. That’s ancient by IT standards – old enough that it’s more expensive to maintain them that it would be to recycle them and buy something new.

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