Jamshed Avari | 25 November 2010
ECONOMICS AND POLITICS HAVE CONSPIRED TO STICK CONSUMERS WITH A FRUSTRATINGLY DEFICIENT OPERATING SYSTEM
JAMSHED AVARI, DEPUTY EDITOR
Over the past few years, I’ve been granted access to the latest products and software, sometimes well before they’re launched. I can often predict whether they'll be successful or are just not going to work out. Two products I've evaluated at launch that seemed destined for completely different fates have now become tightly intertwined: netbooks, originally promised to be low-priced and low-powered devices that could serve in education markets and developing countries; and Windows Starter, which was meant to combat piracy in the same markets.
Fast forward two and a half years, and while netbooks have undeniably taken off, we’re not talking about the same breed of device anymore. They're slim and somewhat stylish, with 10-inch screens and keyboards that actually aren't torturous to type on—all good indicators of progress—but their price tags are too high for them to make any impact in developing markets. The low-cost concept hasn’t worked out, and nearly all netbooks today come with Windows Starter preinstalled instead of the free Linux variants.
As far as Windows Starter goes, I must say I never really liked it. XP Starter, at the time, seemed strange and deliberately deformed, existing only because someone somewhere grudgingly acknowledged the need to compete with free operating systems. XP Starter refused to run more than three programs at a time (the only official reason being that no one in the target market wanted to run more than three programs, which is a poor cover-up). It also refused to recognize a network, run at more than 800 x 600, and harness hardware above its CPU and RAM cutoff specs.
The current version, Windows 7 Starter, does away with the three-program restriction. Since its purpose now is not to serve cost-sensitive markets but only to combat Linux at a low price point, it can’t risk alienating users who run more apps, but has to still find some way to be less capable than even Home Basic. The restriction might not have upset people who had never used computers before, those who want a second PC for convenience would have been outraged. After all, the "net" in "netbook" implies a bunch of browser tabs or windows, an IM program, a few downloads running, and maybe even music in the background. While most might have adapted, there would have been enough backlash to cause a PR nightmare. The unsubtle “Windows Anytime Upgrade” shortcut in the Start menu doesn't foster much goodwill either.
Still, there are other restrictions. Aero Glass visuals are cut, but for some reason users can’t change the wallpaper. Everyone is stuck with pale generic Windows branding—and no amount of reality distortion can claim this is because netbook hardware can’t handle it!
And so the brand new, and highly capable netbook I recently bought, is saddled with Windows 7 Starter. It’s good enough, but just not satisfying. I’m wondering whether to whip out the credit card and spring for Home Basic, but I just don’t feel there’s enough value in it. I should have gotten a decent OS to begin with, which is actually making Ubuntu look mighty good right now.
So if Starter really only exists to make sure Linux doesn’t gain a foothold with users, it’s standing on shaky ground. Most people will simply live with what they’ve got, but quite a few will see this as an impetus to look beyond—at which point the free Linux option is going to look a lot more tempting than the paid Windows upgrade.