Windows 7 Starter Edition limits netbook designs

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

Last week, Microsoft dropped its plan to enforce a three-concurrent-app limit on Windows 7 Starter Edition — the version of the new OS that will be preinstalled only on small PCs, such as netbooks.

Microsoft is still expected, however, to restrict netbook hardware configurations that are eligible for Starter Edition pricing, which means your choices for cheap netbooks may be hobbled — at least in the near term.

When Microsoft first unveiled the various versions of Windows 7 in February, the Windows Team blog explained the editions as follows:
  • Windows 7 Starter: Something that our OEM partners asked for is to have an offering for folks that will do very limited things with their PCs and for PCs with limited hardware capabilities. Windows 7 Starter allows only up to three applications to run at once. This is something that will be offered only through OEM partners.”
Windows 7 Release Candidate spelunkers soon discovered that Starter Edition differs from Home Premium in a number of key ways: there’s no Aero Glass, no Media Center, no DVD burning or playback, no Snipping Tool or Sticky Notes, and no Fast User Switching, among other restrictions.

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Heaven knows why, but Starter Edition users can’t even change the desktop background (wallpaper).

UPDATE 2009-11-19: In the Nov. 19 Top Story, Woody Leonhard explains how to change the desktop wallpaper in Windows 7 Starter Edition for netbooks.

In addition — as promised on the Windows Team blog — the Release Candidate Starter Edition was going to limit you to a maximum of three applications running simultaneously.

That three-app restriction went over like a lead-filled balloon in a microburst.

Windows 7 Starter Edition’s planned three-concurrent-app limit drew brickbats from many corners. In practice, the three-app restriction didn’t really mean much. Many programs didn’t count toward the limit of three. Some apps — such as installers — counted against the limit but really shouldn’t have.

Microsoft never did articulate in simple, declarative sentences precisely which programs were included in the three-application limit. Ed Bott has a thorough accounting of the vagaries of the three-app rule on his ZDNet blog.

In the end, common sense ruled, and Microsoft dropped the three-simultaneous-app limit, as the Windows Team blog described on May 29. Hooray for this ounce of sanity!

SE is ultra-cheap, but netbooks don’t need it

Windows 7 embodies Microsoft’s Great Hope to lock up the netbook software market. With Linux nipping at its heels, Microsoft desperately needs a cheap, hobbled version of Windows 7 to nail down the lowest-end PC models.

From a marketing point of view, Microsoft is caught between a rock and a hard place. The ‘Softies have to endow Starter Edition with enough glitz to get you to buy it preinstalled on netbooks, but at the same time the company wants to leave a bunch of feature carrots dangling on a software stick to get you to pay more for Windows 7 Home Premium, Business, or Ultimate.

Don’t be fooled: Windows 7 Home Premium works very well on most netbooks — the machines don’t need Starter Edition. I’ve been running Windows 7 Ultimate on an Asus Eee PC 1000H since the earliest days of the beta, and Win7 works great.

Despite what you may have read, Microsoft didn’t devise Starter Edition to run on smaller, less-well-endowed computers. Rather, the company needed something cheaper than Home Premium to sell to the ultra-low-cost crowd. Keep that fact in mind while you sift through the marketing hype.

Win7 Starter Edition’s hardware restrictions

Microsoft offers PC manufacturers a price break on copies of Windows XP that are preinstalled on netbooks. The company doesn’t offer any breaks at all on copies of Windows XP that are sold on more-powerful laptops — in fact, those larger notebook PCs always include a license for Windows Vista, even if they ship with Windows XP.

Although the details are highly confidential, it appears that Microsoft will enforce a similar restriction on sales of Windows 7 Starter Edition. According to the TechARP site, Microsoft will sell copies of Starter Edition to PC manufacturers only for installation on netbooks with limited processing ability. That’s defined as those using a single-core processor, running slower than 2GHz, consuming fewer than 15 watts, having less than 1GB of system memory, and using screens 10.2 inches or smaller.

If you work for a hardware manufacturer that’s gearing up to produce large numbers of netbooks with 11-inch screens for sale during the 2009 holiday season, your summer vacation plans may have just gone out the window.

An April 20 Wall Street Journal article (paid sub required) states: “People familiar with the matter say Microsoft takes in less than $15 per netbook for Windows XP once marketing rebates are taken into account — far less than the estimated $50 to $60 the company receives for PCs running Windows Vista.”

If that same differential of $35 to $45 holds true for Windows 7 Starter and Home Premium, you can bet netbook manufacturers are going to keep their low-cost offerings within Microsoft’s limits.

Microsoft’s Win7 Starter Edition requirements may change at any point. But as long as they’re in effect, Microsoft has forced hardware manufacturers to tone down their products running the low-cost version of the OS.

That doesn’t prevent netbook manufacturers from making bigger screens, using faster chips, or offering more system memory. However, those who offer better netbook configurations won’t be able to include Starter Edition as part of the package. Instead, they’ll have to ship their netbooks with Linux or a different — considerably more-expensive — edition of Windows 7.

Controversies swirl around Win7 Starter Edition

Some people see conspiracies behind every Microsoft move, and the Starter Edition hardware throttling is no exception. Certainly, by restricting Starter Edition to netbooks with screens smaller than 10.2 inches, companies planning to build netbooks with larger screens will face higher prices and, probably, lower margins.

As explained in a DigiTimes article (paid sub required), some people see the netbook hardware upgrades as a competitive advantage for Intel over up-and-coming chip makers such as Via. You can insert your favorite Intel-Microsoft conspiracy theory here.

In his InformationWeek blog, Dave Methvin — who’s been covering Windows as long as I have, meaning since the last Ice Age — has this to say about Microsoft’s Starter Edition hardware limitations:

  • “Microsoft crosses the line by attempting to contractually limit OEMs on the hardware that Starter can use. That shouldn’t be Microsoft’s decision. If Starter is good enough for netbooks, then it should be available to OEMs for whatever hardware that can run Windows 7.”
Good business? Stiffed customers? Predatory monopolistic practices?

One thing’s for sure: we’re in for an interesting ride with Starter Edition. Stay tuned!

Woody Leonhard‘s latest books — Windows Vista All-In-One Desk Reference For Dummies and Windows Vista Timesaving Techniques For Dummies — explore what you need to know about Vista in a way that won’t put you to sleep. He and Ed Bott also wrote the encyclopedic Special Edition Using Office 2007.
Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.