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Switched On: Windows 7, Non-Starter Edition

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Microsoft is making many well-received improvements in Windows 7, but may be in for a black eye on its Starter Edition because of growing misconceptions that it has optimized and recommended the limited Starter Edition for netbooks. For instance, the ad copy for the Apple commercial jabbing Starter Edition almost writes itself.

"Hello, I'm a Mac."
"And I'm a PC."
PC is trying to juggle.
"Hey, PC. What's with the juggling act?"
"It's my new operating system. See, it only lets me run three programs at a time so I need to stop doing one thing when I want to do another. Really keeps me on my toes thinking about which three programs I should use. Of course, I could upgrade to a more expensive version that gives me the capabilities I should have had from the beginning."
PC drops the balls.
"Hmm, really? Every Mac lets you run as many programs as you want out of the box."
"Well, that would be nice. I'd sure like to send someone an e-mail about that."
"That's a good idea, PC. Why don't you?"
"Because I had to quit my e-mail program to say that."
PC starts trying to juggle again. Cut to iMac with "Mac" desktop

One of the earliest demonstrations of Windows 7 had it running on a netbook, a hardware phenomenon that caught Microsoft squarely off-guard with the hardware requirements of Windows Vista. PC makers and consumers reacted by running to the familiar embrace of the tried, true and relatively lightweight Windows XP. That was a problem for Microsoft on a number of fronts, including reduced revenue and an inability to bring new strategic initiatives into the marketplace.

However, the alternative would have been even worse for Windows -- have PC manufacturers ship a laptop without Windows at all, and push them further down the road of creating their own front-ends for Linux. Asus started that phenomenon with the original Eee PC, and the practice has created mindshare for the (dubious for now) idea of Android on a netbook.

Windows 7 Starter Edition aims to address both the price and performance issues that caused Windows Vista to stumble when compared with its predecessor. The software's three-application limit clearly implies a sacrifice. It is not one that many netbook users may in fact encounter on a regular basis, particularly with more time increasingly being spent in the browser. Nonetheless, it's all but designed to be a limitation that sticks in the craw of customers.

Starter Edition will also improve performance compared to Windows Vista, with many tests on the unoptimized public beta showing that it meets or beats Windows XP at most tasks. (Performance tests on the first release candidate should be coming soon and should be even more promising.) However, there seems to be a growing misconception that Starter Edition is the operating system Microsoft recommends for netbooks (and nettops) and that consumers must live with the limitations to see the performance gains. Indeed, arriving at the conclusion that a cheap operating system would be tuned for cheap PCs is a reasonable jump.

However, this isn't so, according to Microsoft, which maintains that the core Windows 7 performance increases have been implemented at the kernel level and is recommending that manufacturers include Windows 7 Home Premium on netbooks. For U.S. consumers, much of this will likely be a moot point as there probably will be few netbooks shipped with this curtailed version of Windows 7. Retailers will be as loath to ship Windows 7 Starter Edition as they have been to ship Linux-based notebooks for fear of returns when consumers discover that it imposes artificial limitations, and most major manufacturers will act on the same answer.

With all that going for it, one wonders why Microsoft is even bothering. Is it much better to have a customer looking for a full Windows experience dissatisfied with Starter Edition than Linux? The answer is yes in at least narrow financial terms as Microsoft still collects payment for the weakened OS flavor and has the opportunity to upself the customer in the field. That upside, though, will bring with it high potential for misperception, frustration and ridicule for its willingness to sacrifice the customer experience.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.