Resolved: Netbooks are Notebooks. Period.

By  |  Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Windows 7Netbooks aren’t just changing the world’s perceptions of how powerful a computer must be to be useful–they’re also having a major impact on Microsoft’s business model. They’re one reason why Windows XP refuses to die–even though the Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft makes less than $15 per copy of XP installed on a netbook, versus $50 to $60 for a copy of Windows Vista.

Things will only get more complicated when Windows 7 arrives. It’s designed to do what Windows Vista can’t: perform reasonably well on a modestly-equipped netbook. Microsoft surely hopes that its arrival will help nudge XP into overdue, well-earned retirement. But netbook manufacturers can’t make economic sense of putting a $50 copy of Windows 7 onto a $300 netbook. And Microsoft, understandably, has no desire to sell them a $15 copy of full-blown Windows 7, thereby destroying its ability to sell a $50 one for use on fancier, pricier computers.

Enter Windows 7 Starter Edition, the version that Microsoft plans to pitch for use on low-cost netbooks. It’s got one limitation, but it’s a doozy: It only runs three applications at a time. Which sounds like it would make it useful only for clueless newbies and other folks whose needs are really, really undemanding.

Over at ZDNet, Ed Bott has a revealing post up based on having spent three weeks using Starter Edition, an experience that left him relatively positive about the product. He points out that there are multiple exceptions to the three-app limit: Windows Explorer windows, Gadgets, anti-virus apps that run as separate services, Control Panel utilities, and other items don’t count. Neither do multiple windows and multiple tabs opened up from a single application, such as your Web browser. The bottom line: Depending on what the items in question are, you may be able to have a lot more than three of them open without running into a message telling you that you must save your work and close an app before you can launch another one.

“In short, when I used this system as a netbook, it worked just fine,” Ed writes. “On a netbook, most of the tasks you’re likely to tackle are going to take place in a browser window anyway…If I tried to use this system as a conventional notebook, running multiple Microsoft Office or OpenOffice aps, playing music in iTunes or Windows Media Player, and using third-party IM programs, I would probably be incredibly frustrated with the limitations of Starter Edition.”

Which brings up an interesting question: Are netbooks really netbooks? By which I mean, are they designed primarily to let you use Web-based apps, and are they a distinct class of computer from traditional notebooks?

As of this very moment, you can make the case that the answer to both questions is yes. I’m thinking that the distinctions are going to vanish rapidly, though. A netbook is just a notebook that happens to be small and cheap–and the definitions of both “small” and “cheap” are blurring. Dell, for instance, sells a Mini netbook with a not-tiny 12-inch screen. And the existence of cheap netbooks is driving down the cost of notebooks, period: Best Buy, for instance, already sells multiple traditional notebooks in the netbook-like neighborhood of $400 or so. I don’t think every notebook will look like today’s netbooks, but I think the trend will be towards smaller, lighter models (especially as features like optical drives go away) that cost less than a thousand bucks.

Do people use netbooks mostly for Web-based apps? I may try to find out via a survey, but for the moment I can speak only for myself: I do a lot of Web stuff on my Asus Eee PC 1000HE, but I also use old-fashioned software–Web browsers, Skype, Paint.NET, Adobe Acrobat, and more. I suspect I’d run afoul of Windows 7 Starter Edition’s limitations…well, not constantly, but frequently. Then again, I’d be willing to pay for an upgrade to a version of Windows 7 without the three-app limit–and I’m already curious about how much such an upgrade might cost.

All of which leaves me thinking that Microsoft is still in a tough spot that will only get tougher over time: As notebooks get dirt cheap, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for it to maintain the profit margins that Windows has enjoyed for the past couple of decades. And if it doesn’t come up with a low-cost version of Windows that a reasonable person won’t find to be unreasonably crippled, it gives Linux a great big opportunity to grab the market share that so far has eluded it.

Of course, anything anyone says right now about Windows 7 Starter Edition the future of netbooks is speculation. When Windows 7 ships in a few months–on netbooks that will deliver more power at a given price point than today’s models–we’ll get to see what real people think about all this.

 
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14 Comments For This Post

  1. david Says:

    Does Chrome’s “every tab is a separate process” philosophy get stomped on here?

  2. IcyFog Says:

    Further blurring that line in size, if not price, is the MacBook Air with its 13.3-inch screen. And if computer companies refuse to put Linux on a netbook, or whatever it’s called, it looks like I’ll be buying a light-weight, very thin MacBook Air.

  3. Ed Bott Says:

    Re Chroome and processes: I was able to run multiple Chrome processes under Win7 Starter (more than a dozen, in one test, although I think I could have continued indefinitely) and they counted as a single program. The same is true of IE8, which behaves in a similar fashion.

  4. Drew Says:

    I just bought a HP 1030NR last weekend, and is pretty amazing. I would argue that a netbook and a notebook are different things, at least for me, in so far as what I bought the netbook for.

    I plan on doing a lot of traveling in the next year (all stateside, with a Verizon broadband modem). I teach high school, and most of my work is done on-line (grades, attendence) via browswer.

    All I plan on using the netbook for is web-browsing and e-mail (via a web-browser). I don’t plan on writing the great American novel on it.

    I do most of my content creation in Word and PowerPoint (at home, with the larger monitor) but I can just as easily do it in OpenOffice, which I have loaded on the netbook.

    Being limited to 3 apps would not be a problem for me (although I would resent it) in this case.

    If I could find a way to run Verizon’s VZAccess Manager in a Linux distro, I would just as soon load that on there. It will be telling to see how long Microsoft is willing (or is forced) to keep supporting XP (which my netbook came with).

    From what I am reading on-line, Windows 7 starter may be north of $100 and maybe as high as $200. I don’t think I am going to spend 60% of the cost of my netbook to upgrade to Windows 7.

  5. Ed Bott Says:

    Drew, you are way off on prices for Windows 7 Starter. For starters (ha ha) you will not be able to buy a retail copy and upgrade your current netbook. Win7 Starter will be available ONLY as a preinstalled OS on “selected hardware.” I estimate that hardware makers will pay Microsoft less than $25 for this OS and will pass the cost on to customers.

    I do, however, predict that you will be able to buy an upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium for WELL under $100. I also predict that it will run just fine on your hardware. Time will, of course, tell.

  6. Drew Says:

    Thanks for the info. What I have read on-line has been vague and contridictory, to say the least. I don’t need/want a lot of what Vista/7 offer. Yes, Aero is neat, but I tend to turn that stuff off and just go for the Windows “classic” desktop.

    What will the upgrade physically be like for a computer that does not have a CD/DVD drive?

  7. Ed Bott Says:

    To upgrade from XP or Vista, you’ll need to attach an external DVD drive or copy the media to a folder on your hard drive and run the upgrade from there. Mild hassle at best.

  8. Drew Says:

    Interesting. Again, thanks. This has been a very informative thread.

    As to the first theme of the thread, it would be an interesting survey to see if people do use “netbooks” differently that “full” notebooks.

    IcyFog talks about the Macbook Air (something I would love to have!), and I wonder (along with the Dell 12″ “netbook”) if the dividing line may be the 10.1″ screen or so. To use the Air, it is just under 3″ longer and 3″ wider.

    I looked at the HP 1030NR as something I could fit in the small pouch of my bag (and it is a close fit). I don’t know if I was looking more for lower weight or smaller size. This threat has gotten me thinking a lot about how we talk about these things.

  9. Harry McCracken Says:

    I’m thinking that if an upgrade from Starter Edition to something more powerful is reasonably priced enough, it would have Microsoft in the position of doing something that a lot of software vendors have done for a long time: distributing a basic version of an application (Windows 7, in this case) bundled on PCs without making a lot of money in part because there’s money to be made from future upgrades.

    (And thanks, Ed, for dropping in.)

    –Harry

  10. Drew Says:

    I guess reasonable is the key. I could see spending say $50 or so for the upgrade, but I don’t think I want to go much north of that. Again, it comes down to what value comes with that upgrade (or, conversely, being forced since support for XP would end.)

  11. Pete Shaw Says:

    Guys, what about putting Ubuntu on the Asus EEE 1000HE, and forgetting the Windows 7? Add Firefox and OpenOffice and rock.

  12. John Bailo Says:

    My Dell Mini 9 with ubuntu performs as netbook and notebook quite well on a minimal amount of memory and disk. I bought the $200 special with no extras…and Ubuntu. I can run large office applications like openOffice Write with ease. Ubuntu has the licensed fluendo codecs so I have yet to find a problem playing any web video.

    Easy to use? Here’s a snapshot of my Dell’s GUI…obviously a child could use it!

    http://you-saw-it-here-first.com/v/screenshots/UbuntuOnADellMini.png.html

  13. Linda M Au Says:

    I have an Acer Aspire One (10″ screen) netbook, but honestly, it has better specs than the full-sized laptop it has replaced for me. I loaded Office 2007 onto it, InDesign, Acrobat Professional, and even a few PC adventure games … plus the usual Eudora and other programs I want.

    I contend that the only thing different about my AAO is the smaller size and having to load programs via our home network.

    It’s a notebook computer, only more compact. Period.

    I’m a Windows person, so I quickly decided that my first attempt at a smaller unit — the original 7″ Linux Asus eeePC — wasn’t going to work for me, considering what I wanted to load onto it. I prefer an actual hard drive, Windows OS, and a slightly larger screen.

    So, the 10″ AAO has been a godsend. I’ll probably never own a full-sized laptop again.

  14. Rickey Stepter Says:

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