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Can Microsoft do what it's never done before: Make a new Windows version run better on old/low-end hardware than its predecessor?

I broached this topic in a previous blog post, but Saul Hansell at the NYT Bits Blog examines Microsoft's efforts to de-bloat Windows 7 so it runs well on netbook computers. You know, unlike Vista.

The biggest question facing Windows 7 is whether Microsoft can really think small.

When designing Windows Vista, Microsoft put a lot of effort into taking advantage of sophisticated computer hardware, with fancy graphics on the surface and lots of new processing tricks inside. Microsoft says this positioned the operating system for the future, despite the complaining of many users who grumble that Vista has bogged down their computers with unneeded frills and incompatibilities.

While there is some more high-powered glitz coming in Windows 7, the real challenge for Microsoft isn’t the latest multicore superchip, but making the operating system work well, and affordably, on stripped-down PCs, netbooks and other small devices.

He comes to some interesting conclusions after talking to people at CES. These include:

Linux has not caught on for consumer PCs ... the vast majority of buyers have chosen to spend $30 to $50 more to get Windows on inexpensive netbooks.

Agreed, though as previously discussed, I'm curious about the future of Linux now in ways I haven't been for some time.

The early signs are that Windows 7 can run better on smaller computers than Windows Vista. Indeed, the company has been boasting about how little memory the operating system uses.

This is most likely true, though as I noted previously, Windows 7 is not "magic," i.e. it won't make an obsolete computer suddenly viable again. What Windows 7 does do is run better on low-end modern computers using the Intel Atom processor.

Microsoft will cut prices somewhat for Windows on small computers

I have no info about this one, but Hansell points out that Microsoft charges less for Windows on netbooks and makes up for it in volume. So much for Apple's theory about there being no money to be made in that market.

Microsoft has lost its way in consumer electronics

That's a nice bit of speculation. But it's wrong. And here's why: Microsoft has never found its way in consumer electronics, ever. In fact, every single consumer electronics product that Microsoft has made has lost money. Think about it. Even the Xbox 360, which the software giant touts as some kind of success, will never, ever make up the billions of R&D it plowed through. And that's their most successful CE product. Microsoft has never been a force in CE. So they can't have lost their way. They've just simply never made it work.

The list of Microsoft consumer stinkbombs is a mile high. Media Center. MediaRoom. UltimateTV. WebTV. PlaysForSure/Windows Media DRM. Zune. That Outlook-compatible phone from years back. Any product with the words "Microsoft" and "Home" in them. The Teddy Ruxbin bear thing. (And you thought I'd forgotten.) Don't get me wrong: Many of these are good, even great products. But if it's just me and 17 other people using them, what's the point?

There's a side discussion here to be had about Apple's more successful approach with CE, and Microsoft's supposed softening towards Apple. I'd just note that market forces have aligned to erase some of the issues that dogged cross platform compatibility before, especially around digital music. A year ago, most iTunes-purchased music was both junk (128K AAC) and incompatible (FairPlay DRM encoded). Today, virtually all (and soon, all) iTunes-purchased music will be of incredibly high quality (256K AAC) and very compatible with the current (Xbox 360, Zune) and coming generation (Windows 7 Windows Media Player and Media Center) Microsoft products. The world is changing and maybe taking a Windows Live-type approach--where Microsoft simply works with the competition--is the way to go.

Just a thought. And I wasn't even at CES.

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