Nobody would advocate that Microsoft should produce bloatware, and Windows Vista took some of its early potshots because it ran poorly on PC hardware without sufficient graphics acceleration. Tuning Windows 7 should help change perceptions that Vista created and help it compete more effectively against a tuned Mac OS version coming in Snow Leopard.
Now is the time for Microsoft to start cashing in some of its R&D investments in new input methods, user interface, media processing and artificial intelligence.
The differentiator must be more than user interface polish such as the translucence and animation effects of Aero because that isn't enough of a pull for those on the fence. Graphically advanced video games are, of course, demanding applications that drove some of the most powerful consumer PC hardware. But they are not included with Windows and, while more people may play them than compose multitrack compositions in GarageBand, their appeal is also less than universal.
With Google's Chrome OS threatening to further attack the low end of the market, now is the time for Microsoft to start cashing in some of its R&D investments in new input methods, user interface, media processing and artificial intelligence to build more into Windows that requires advanced hardware. Such capabilities must be broadly appealing, either enabling users to do something they cannot do otherwise or in such an engaging way that consumers would hate to give it up.
The last thing Windows needs is a new SKU, but it's acceptable to create a minimum system requirements for a subset of features. These can help differentiate the high-end PC better and reinforce the industry's desired role of the netbook as a second or third companion device that runs Windows, yet can't deliver a full PC 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.