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Windows 7 Starter? That's How They Get You

I've known this guy Lou since high school and through some strange coincidences, our lives have roughly paralleled each other. We both married girls we met during college, we both moved out to Phoenix, Arizona in 1993, and then we both later moved back to the Boston area. Our wives are great friends to this day, better than Lou and I, actually, but we all see each other fairly regularly. Lou taught we exactly one lesson over the years, more of a catch phrase, really, and it resonates with me to this day: "That's how they get you."

Lou generally applied this phrase in fairly pedestrian circumstances--always ordering water in a restaurant because the markup on drinks is "how they get you" in that business--but it can be applied to any number of scenarios. This week I find myself thinking of Lou and this pearl of wisdom in terms of my own industry. It's kind of uncomfortable.

Here's what's bugging me: Microsoft's new low-end version of Windows during the Windows 7 time frame will be Windows 7 Starter. It used to be Windows Vista Home Basic, but in a perverse and illogical move, Microsoft has decided to swap the two products out for each other. That is, in Windows Vista, the Starter edition was provided only to those who purchased low-cost PCs in emerging countries. It was limited to running three applications at a time, and was thus sort of a Fisher Price version of Windows. Meanwhile, Home Basic was the entry-level Windows for the rest of the world.

In Windows 7, Starter is being sold worldwide, while Home Basic is being relegated to emerging markets. However, the original plan was for Windows 7 Starter to still only be able to run three applications at a time. But when customers started complaining, Microsoft backed off: Now, Starter will run any number of applications, just like grown up versions of Windows. That's a win for users, right? Especially when you consider that Starter will be the lowball version that ships with most netbooks going forward.

The RC version of Windows 7 Starter still includes the old 3-app limitation. That is not the problem.

Not so fast. Windows 7 Starter still has some amazingly poor limitations built-in. The most egregious: Users will be unable to customize their desktop or welcome screen with their own photos, or any other background imagery or color; they must simply accept what comes with it. Why is that, you ask? Because Windows 7-based netbooks will often be sold with wireless broadband connections just like smart phones. Wireless companies are subsidizing the cost of the devices--just as they do with smart phones--so they can reap the rewards of $40-$100 per month data plans. And they are the ones that will be providing custom desktop wallpaper and welcome screens. Screens that you, the user, will be unable to change. (Unless you pay to upgrade to a higher end Windows 7 version.)

Aside from the obvious, the reason this stinks is that Microsoft has arbitrarily taken advantage of those who represent the fastest growing (the only growing?) segment of the PC market: Netbook sales are exploding and are expected to continue to sell like gangbusters, and a new generation of wireless-carrier-sponsored devices should make this phenomenon even more obvious. But while I think it's OK for the device to sport a Verizon or AT&T logo--imagery that could market the device to others--it's not OK for these companies to control what the user sees while they're using the computer. After all, they don't need to be sold on the device anymore. What's the point?

Microsoft made a big deal this past week in announcing that they were dropping the three application limit in Windows 7, but in my testing of this system over the past few months, I never really found that to be particularly problematic. Not allowing the user to change the wallpaper, however, is ridiculous and nonsensical. There's no real benefit to the wireless carrier, let alone the user.

Windows 7 Starter? That's how they get you.

An edited version of this article appeared in the June 2, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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