Mobility

Is Microsoft shooting its other foot with Windows 7 on netbooks?

With the release of Microsoft Windows 7 set to occur in 2009, it leads one to contemplate the possibility of Windows 7 as a netbook operating system. Greg Shultz considers whether Microsoft's OS plans for the next generation of netbooks makes any sense.

Back in 1997, I acquired an HP Jornada H/PC running Windows CE 2.0 and began writing a weekly column for Microsoft's Windows CE site. The Jornada was a great little computer that basically looked like a miniature laptop and was about as big as an oversized checkbook. It came with a touch screen and a pen-like stylus that you could use like a mouse pointer, and it had a nice little keyboard on which you could actually type comfortably. The screen was good sized and sported a 640 by 480 resolution with 256 colors.

The system came with Microsoft Pocket Office, Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Pocket Access, Pocket PowerPoint, and Pocket Outlook, which allowed me to really use the system for work. The Jornada had a built-in modem, and Windows CE came with Pocket Internet Explorer, so I could even surf the Internet.

As you can imagine, in that day and age being able to slide a computer in my shirt pocket and head off to wherever I wanted was pretty heady stuff. However, after about a year, the novelty wore off and I put it aside in favor of a more powerful, yet larger, Toshiba laptop running Windows 98 Second Edition.

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Netbooks

I always knew that the technology would evolve and that miniature laptops with as much promise as the Jornada had in its day would once again surface. That is why I've been watching the emergence of the netbooks very closely.

In 2007 Asus unveiled the ASUS Eee PC, and the netbook revolution began to take shape. Soon Dell and HP launched netbook computers, and others joined the fray. While versions of Linux appeared to be the OS of choice for netbooks, mainly because Vista was too much of a resource hog, Microsoft decided to keep Windows XP in play and keep Linux from gaining a stronghold in the netbook market. To that end, Microsoft started formulating deals with the netbook OEMs to make it affordable for them to put XP on netbooks and keep the prices down. In fact, a recent article from the Wall Street Journal revealed that Microsoft is charging less than $15 for Windows XP on a netbook system.

I'd really like to get a netbook, but I'm not ready to jump to Linux yet, and the thought of buying a 2009 computer running a 2001 operating system just doesn't seem right to me. As such, I've been waiting to see how Microsoft will address the netbook market with Windows 7.

In this week's Windows Vista and Windows 7 Report, let's consider whether Microsoft's OS plans for the next generation of netbooks makes any sense.

So what about Windows 7?

Back in February, Microsoft announced its main line of Windows 7 SKUs, as shown in Table A.

Table A: The Windows 7 SKU lineup

SKU

Key Features

Starter Three concurrent applications, ability to join a Home Group, improved Taskbar and Jump Lists.
Home Basic Unlimited applications, ability to join a Home Group, improved Taskbar and Jump Lists, Live thumbnail previews and enhanced visual experience, advanced networking support, and Mobility Center. (emerging market only)
Home Premium Unlimited applications, ability to join a Home Group, improved Taskbar and Jump Lists, Live thumbnail previews and enhanced visual experience, advanced networking support, Mobility Center, Aero Glass and advanced windows navigation, easy networking, improved media format support, enhancements to Windows Media Center and media streaming, including Play To, Multi-touch and improved handwriting recognition.
Professional Unlimited applications, ability to join a Home Group, improved Taskbar and Jump Lists, Live thumbnail previews and enhanced visual experience, advanced networking support, Mobility Center, Aero Glass and advanced windows navigation, easy networking, improved media format support, enhancements to Windows Media Center and media streaming, including Play To, Multi-touch and improved handwriting recognition, ability to join a Domain, Encrypting File System, and Location Aware Printing.
Ultimate & Enterprise Unlimited applications, ability to join a Home Group, improved Taskbar and Jump Lists, Live thumbnail previews and enhanced visual experience, advanced networking support, Mobility Center, Aero Glass and advanced windows navigation, easy networking, improved media format support, enhancements to Windows Media Center and media streaming, including Play To, Multi-touch and improved handwriting recognition, ability to join a Domain, Encrypting File System, and Location Aware Printing, BitLocker, Direct Access, BranchCache, and AppLocker.

While this lineup is very similar to the Vista SKUs, Microsoft has switched the two bottom-line offerings. In Vista, Starter was for emerging markets and Home Basic was for low-end OEM systems. In Windows 7, Starter is designated for low-end OEM systems and Home Basic is for emerging markets.

Starter

Of course, netbooks are considered low-end OEM systems, and as such Starter has been designated as the operating system for netbooks. While on the surface this sounds reasonable, as soon as you read the first line in the description of key features — three concurrent applications — all reason simply goes out the window. 

My first thought was that it was a typo, a mistake; someone had simply misplaced the emerging market only label. Surely, Windows 7 Starter was supposed to be for emerging markets and Windows 7 Home Basic was for low-end OEM systems/netbooks.

However, no correction has ever been issued, and the notion of Microsoft forcing Starter on netbook consumers has been allowed to pick up steam. Pretty bad move on Microsoft's part, especially, when you consider that a recent report issued by the Gartner market research firm predicts that the netbook market will grow by 81 percent this year.

I thought that they were bent on improving their image with Windows 7.

Of course, Microsoft appears to be thinking that the Windows 7 version of the Anytime Upgrade feature will save the day. People will just buy a netbook with Starter on it and then turn around and upgrade to Home Premium.

But how well will a netbook run Home Premium? Glance back at the Home Premium features listed in Table A. Is the idea of running Home Premium on a netbook a sound one? Or, is it another Vista-capable debacle in the making?

Now, take another look at the Home Basic features listed in Table A. To me, the Home Basic features just seem like they would be a perfect fit for a netbook. Without a doubt, I'd buy a netbook running Windows 7 Home Basic and would finally have the opportunity to relive the excitement and freedom that I first experienced long ago with my HP Jornada H/PC running Windows CE 2.0.

What's your take?

Do you have a netbook? Are you planning on getting a netbook? Would you buy a netbook with Windows 7 Starter on it? Does a netbook running Windows 7 Home Basic make more sense to you? Do you think Microsoft is making a mistake? As always, if you have comments or information to share about this topic, please take a moment to drop by the TechRepublic Community Forums and let us hear from you.

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About

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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