When did Microsoft “make things happen” with Netbooks?

As Warner noted earlier, we’ve gotten more words from Steve Ballmer on tablets running Windows 7, and I agree, they are all just words at this point. The tragic part is, even if you take him at face value, Ballmer didn’t actually promise anything worthwhile.

“We have got to make things happen. Just like we had to make things happen on netbooks, we’ve got to make things happen with Windows 7 on slates, and we’re in the process of doing that as we speak.” — quote via TechFlash.

Yes, absolutely, Microsoft must make things happen with Windows 7 on slates. Like they did with netbooks? No, not like that, because Microsoft didn’t really “make things happen” with netbooks.

Remember when netbooks first came out? They were low-powered notebooks with 7″ displays. The ASUS Eee PC offered 2GB SSD powered by an Intel Celeron-M ULV 353. Xandros Linux was chosen as the operating system over Windows XP. Why? Because Xandros was “better” than XP? No, because you can’t fit XP on a 2GB SSD, and even if you did, it would be barely functional and slow as molasses with that Celeron ULV processor. Netbooks started out using Linux because Windows XP wouldn’t fit. So what did Microsoft do about that? Strip down their OS? No, they waited for the hardware to improve.

Intel started offering their Atom line of processors, which were cheap enough for netbooks and fast enough to run Windows. Tiny SSDs were replaced with cheap 80-160GB hard drives. Screen sizes increased to today’s 8-10″ standard. Microsoft offered better pricing for netbooks, but technologically, they didn’t do anything specifically for netbooks. At most, they convinced vendors to upsize the hardware to accommodate Windows, but they didn’t change Windows.

Microsoft got caught flat-footed by netbooks, so I cut them some slack for Vista not being ready for them and offering XP as an alternative. But after some early back and forth, the Windows 7 Starter Edition for netbooks wound up being just the basic Windows 7 operating system without premium features. It offers no netbook-specific functionality. Yes, Windows 7 is a big improvement over Vista in terms of running on the hardware, but that’s an improvement on all hardware, be it new netbook, old desktop or anything in-between.

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So basically, the only thing Microsoft really made happen for netbooks is better pricing. They didn’t squeeze out Linux as the main netbook OS. They just waited for hardware improvements to allow Windows to be an option, and let their dominance of the OS market do the rest. That won’t work with tablets. If they just want to make faster and cheaper Tablet PCs, then by all means, go the netbook route. I encourage it. But as much as I love Tablet PCs, I’m not going to pretend that price is the only reason they haven’t been embraced by the consumer market these past nine years.

If Microsoft wants to make things happen for tablets, they have to do it under the hood: improve the interface, make it as easy to control with touch as it is with mouse or pen. Making business deals and waiting for hardware improvements, like they did with netbooks, isn’t enough. Unfortunately, between his talk about working with vendors and waiting for Intel’s Oak Trail processors, that’s all Steve Ballmer has claimed they would do. Whatever else may be happening on the software side, Ballmer offered no reassurances about that.

Comments

  1. GTaylor says

    Sumocat, XP fit on the netbook better than Vista. Then 7 came out. But XP stayed around. Can you compare whether XP or 7 did or does more for netbooks?

    • Sumocat says

      I’m not sure what you mean by what it “does” for netbooks. Performance-wise, I’ve toyed with a few netbooks running XP and found them responsive enough, but I don’t know anyone with a Windows 7 netbook. I would assume the improvement in functionality of 7 over XP holds as true for netbooks as it does for any other form factor. The huge drop in sales growth this past year indicates Win 7 didn’t do anything anything to boost netbook sales (though I wouldn’t go so far as to blame it for the decline). Windows helped bring netbooks to more users (again, due to their existing market dominance), but it doesn’t seem like buyers care whether its XP or 7.

      • GTaylor says

        Are W7 netbooks that rare? No effect on the market and even a guy writing about the lack of W7 on the netbook market doesn’t know anyone who owns one?
        Well, there is this:
        http://arstechnica.com/microsoft/news/2010/07/windows-7-trounces-windows-xp-at-green-computing.ars
        about power consumption.
        And then there are sites dedicated to finding, studying, comparing, and inviting comments from reader users on mobile computing hardware.
        But maybe notebooks are not as big a market segment as say the Android or iFad tablettes.

        I don’t own a netbook with win7 either, but I would like the chance to use one with a digitizer installed on the screen to increase functionality. (requires more than Starter.)

        • Sumocat says

          You’re expanding this far beyond your original query, and I don’t appreciate it. You asked me to compare XP to 7, which I approached from several angles due to your vague wording. I made no claims about the effect of 7 on netbooks until you asked, and that was a comparison within the Windows family. My overall assessment of Windows for netbooks was positive. That didn’t have anything to do with Android or the iPad.

          • GTaylor says

            Pardon me Sumocat, I have no intention of expanding this beyond my original question. Vagueness is something that I am guilty of.
            So if I may;
            Is your claim that “Microsoft didn’t really “make things happen” with netbooks”?
            Were neither XP or W7 and their own recognition by customers a factor in netbooks being accepted?
            Does W7 have any contribution over and above XP as far as the netbook market is concerned?
            If I am off base than I apologize to you and your readers. It shows how poorly I understood your article.

          • Sumocat says

            Is your claim that “Microsoft didn’t really “make things happen” with netbooks”? — Aside from offering better pricing and licensing on old XP and basic 7, yes. But…

            Were neither XP or W7 and their own recognition by customers a factor in netbooks being accepted? — I’m sure Windows recognition did help sales, but that wasn’t due to pro-active action by Microsoft. It happened because Windows is the dominant PC operating system. They didn’t “make things happen” for people to want Windows on netbooks. That demand was there regardless of anything else. What they did was fine for netbooks, but it’s not enough for tablets.

            Does W7 have any contribution over and above XP as far as the netbook market is concerned? — Netbook market growth has flattened this past year. If 7 provided a sales boost, it was short-lived. It’s possible 7 is keeping the netbook market from shrinking. It could be better or worse without 7, I don’t know, but my general reading from regular people I know with netbooks is that they’re not concerned with which version of Windows it runs as long as it runs Windows. Whatever the contributions of 7 or XP, they are hugely overshadowed by concerns over whether it runs Windows vs. some OS they don’t know. Again though, this is specifically about netbooks, which people view as little versions of Windows notebooks.

  2. dstrauss says

    “So basically, the only thing Microsoft really made happen for netbooks is better pricing. They didn’t squeeze out Linux as the main netbook OS. They just waited for hardware improvements to allow Windows to be an option, and let their dominance of the OS market do the rest. That won’t work with tablets.”

    This is modus operandi for Microsoft since the days of DOS. They have always been flat-footed as competitors led the way: remember the memory wizardry to break 640k led by expanded then extended memory; Sidekick; GUI. You name it, Microsoft is ALWAYS waiting for the hardware to support its bloated code. That’s what is going on here. Atom WILL NOT SUPPORT A COMPETITIVE SLATE DEVICE WITH WINDOWS 7. SO what do we do – obfuscate (FUD) with a little smoke, mirrors, and sleight of hand, praying that Pine Trail (or is that pine tar) will save their bacon from the hardware side (why not, it worked from 8086 to 286; 386 to 486; then Pentium – why not now).

  3. Dan says

    Okay, I need to chime in (as usual)…MS does not really do hardware. The business model at MS has been to rely on Intel at first, and then other manufacturers to do the hardware. MS has done the OS and software, that is why it is named MicroSOFT.

    When I read that MS ‘did not do anything under the hood’ of the netbook to make it any better, well yes, you are correct. They have influence over the hardware for sure, but what goes in the box is up to EE-PC, HP, Intel, etc. MS cannot be blamed for waiting around until the hardware cought up to load XP…come on, did you expect a committment of resources to make and ‘XP lite’ out of a 5 year old OS? The last thing they need to do is fragment Windows into separate offerings again.

    So what did MS ‘do’ for the netbook? They extended the availability of XP. MS also created Win 7 to work well with the minimal hardware of a netbook, something that they did not really have to do and something they never did in the past.

    For those of us that dabble in playing with old gear it is pretty evident that there is a ‘hole’ in the middle of Win 7 capability. It loads on top dog models and runs fine as every new MS OS has ever done; it loads on minimal hardware machines and runs fine, something MS OS’s have never done; but Win 7 has trouble with the middle of the road systems as Windows has always done. The drivers are not quite right and it is clear that not much time was spent making sure it runs on a 3 year old laptop with state of the art graphics for its time.

    Maybe what MS should do is resurrect the hardware division and start dabbling in bleading edge hardware integration and form factors. Of course if they did that I would suspect that they would be criticised for being off in left field…like when the XBox was released.

    Dan

    • Sumocat says

      I didn’t claim they should do anything with the hardware, and I explained that what they should do “under the hood” is improve the interface, which is software. More importantly, I made no argument that they should have done anything differently for netbooks. As far as I see, our opinions don’t actually conflict.

      I would point out, however, that Microsoft was involved with the hardware reference design and requirements for the Tablet PC and UMPC, so when it comes to tablets, they have traditionally been involved with the hardware.

  4. Dennisvjames says

    I’m sitting in a cafe tied to their Wifi (or someone’s WiFi around here) using XP on a Fujitsu P1620 and 1 GB. With the larger battery I get about 7.5 to 8 hours of continuous connection. I didn’t buy an iPad. I wanted a tablet that I could take notes on and do a little word processing etc. I have Office 2007 (including OneNote – ‘natch). I can VPN to my computer at work and although the screens small I can get what I want done. Although I could put Win 7 on this I haven’t. It does what I want it to do and it’s blazing fast (stripped down). If Microsoft was really thinking they would take XP, throw in cool things (but keep the bloatware parts out – KISS this please), and make this their Slate operating system. They’ve extended it to 2010 in Netbooks…why not?

  5. Vince Anido says

    I think they’re referring to how they went from virtually no market share in netbooks to over 90% in just a few years.

    http://blogs.computerworld.com/study_windows_clobbers_linux_on_netbooks_with_over_90_share

    That doesn’t mean it’s a direct analogy, tablets require a lot more UI work than waiting for netbook specs to catch up to windows, as you pointed out. But it seems like he’s trying to rally his troops by saying, “We’ve made huge progress in targeted markets before, we can do it again.”

    Regardless, as a long-time windows tablet user, I am sorely disappointed in Microsoft’s lack of innovation since XP Tablet edition.

  6. cassetti says

    VERY well written article – i 1000000% agree with you. This comes from a man who’s dream it was to own a Tablet PC before the iPad was EVER even mentioned and then purchased a top-of-the-line Lenovo X61T (with the rare touch-screen option in addition to a wacom digitizer). Windows is just not cut for the tablet systems – they need to emulate Android and iOS FAST (but what they did with windows mobile 7 is horrible)

    • kyith says

      +1 to this post. MSFT have been dragging their feet here man. Have been for the Phone, have been for the Tablet.

      its their own fault they ended up in this position.

  7. TM says

    I really hope that MS can come up with a standard OS for tablet’s so we don’t have to rely on companies to make the right custom OS.

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