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Microsoft Netbook Definition Explains a Lot

No wonder Microsoft is looking to the web as a way of delivering Office. The company is using a seriously tiered approach to selling Windows 7 that could restrict what applications, including Office, might be able to run on a netbook.

Recently, CEO Steve Ballmer confirmed that Microsoft will significantly limit, via licensing, the specs of a machine that is allowed to run Windows 7 Starter, which is the version that is expected to be targeting netbooks.

Although the company hasn't publicly released details yet, a Malaysian site, Tech ARP, purportedly received and published maximum configuration details for small notebooks that would run Windows 7 Starter. This alone is a significant departure from Microsoft's previous approaches to marketing operating systems. I can't think of a single case where the company restricted any software to a machine that could be no more powerful than a given configuration. (Heck, usually the bet is that you need to crank up the specs as high as possible to get performance.) Look at this graph from Tech Arp:

Yup, I think you read that correctly (if you can see the type). No processor over 2GHz, no screen over 10.2-inches, only 1GB of RAM, at most 250GB of hard drive space. If you look at minimum system requirements for Office 2007, you end up with the following:

  • 500 MHz processor
  • 256 MB RAM
  • 1024x768 resolution monitor
  • But these are low-balled, as is usual, and you have to figure on significantly more horsepower. Although the software technically may run with this minimum configuration, Word can't even get contextual grammar and spell checking if the system doesn't have a gig of RAM. And have you ever run a smaller monitor, say 15-inches, at 1024x768 resolution? It is pretty tiny. Now consider it on a monitor that's barely larger than 10-inches. I'm not sure that most people would be willing to use the combination of setting and physical form factor.

    I somehow can't imagine that OEMs are going to happily bundle the leading Microsoft application onto a netbook because people will start peeling paint off the walls out of frustration. But perhaps this is a gambit on the part of Microsoft, which hasn't been shy about saying that it wants more money for Windows Starter. Perhaps that's because the company knew that the machine limitations would also greatly restrict the amount of software sales they've come to expect to be bundled onto new machines.

    Office isn't the only product to consider. Adobe Photoshop CS4, for one, needs a minimum of a 1.8GHz processor, which means the low end of performance of this package is about at the upper limit of netbook performance under Windows 7 Starter. Want to run a popular PC-based game? You'll likely find that the bottom end of processor performance has to be at 2GHz.

    This sounds like a case of Microsoft, possibly working with its major OEM customers, creating a netbook experience that will obviously fail to get people to move back to traditional laptops.

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