Netbooks, pretty much by definition, don’t have optical drives. Microsoft is talking up Windows 7 as a great OS for netbooks. Retail versions of Windows, like almost all software, come on optical discs. Problem!
Over at Cnet, Ina Fried is reporting that Microsoft is contemplating the possibility of shipping a version of Windows 7 on a thumb drive. It makes perfect sense if the company hopes to sell upgrades for a meaningful percentage of all those netbooks out there running Windows XP. (Windows 7 will presumably be available as a download–that’s the primary means of distribution for the Release Candidate–but not everyone is going to want to download an entire operating system. And if you spend $100 or more on a piece of software, it’s comforting to have it in physical form.)
USB drives may have gotten remarkably cheap, but they’re still costlier than a DVD disc–even bought in the volume that Microsoft would need them. But Corel sells its new Home Office–a $70 office suite aimed at netbook users–on a thumb drive, so it appears to be economically feasible. (Years ago, Corel was also one of the first companies to distribute software on CD-ROM rather than ludicrously tall stacks of floppy disks–maybe it’s once again figured out the future of software distribution before most of the rest of the world.)
I’m convinced that within two or three years, optical drives of any sort will be the exception, not the rule–even on the nicest notebooks. We’ll do our watching of movies and backing up of data using wireless connectivity and the Internet. We’ll also get our software the same way. (Prediction: At some point stores like Best Buy and Staples will simply do away with their software sections, and it’ll probably happen sooner than you might think.)
For now, though, people still buy plenty of software in stores. I’m betting that there will indeed be a version of Windows 7 delivered on a thumb drive, and that there’s a good chance most software that’s available in physical form at all will be sold on flash devices before too long.