foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

Windows 7 Starter: The anti-feature edition

, posted: 5-Feb-2009 07:29

Much has been written about the many SKUs (editions) in which Microsoft Windows 7 will hit the market. There are the usual subjects, such as 'Professional' or 'Enterprise'. These editions are defined by the additional features they provide. For example, to get the Aero graphical user interface, you will need to have at least the 'Premium' edition. To get encrypted file systems, you need at least the 'Professional Edition', and so on. This type of re-packaging of different feature sets is a pretty standard way for vendors of any kind of product and allows them to sell at different prices in order to reach the highest number of potential customers. So far, so good.

What struck me the most, however, was the Starter edition, a lightweight version for netbook computers, that will only be capable of running three applications concurrently (quoted from here). Three applications, maybe IE, an email client and a Word processor? Or IE, and two pieces of adware. :-)

This is a prime example of an anti-feature, a 'feature' of the software, which had to be specifically put in place in order to limit what the user can do. So, while the other editions provide features that allow users to do more, this particular 'feature' deliberately cripples the software and limits the user's options. These days, anti-features are often found around DRM. But as we can see here, anti-features can pop up in the most unexpected places. Also consider another example of a Microsoft anti-feature, which I personally had to deal with, designed to reduce the capabilities of competing web-server software.

So, back to Windows 7 Starter. You have to imagine the code that had to be put in place to implement this no-more-than-three-apps limitation. Somewhere in the core of their OS there must be some lines, similar to this:

bool allow_new_app() {
    if (edition == "STARTER" && num_apps == 3) {
        return FAILURE;
    else {
        return SUCCESS;

Specific code, just introduced to cripple the capabilities.

I don't have a problem with software being sold in different editions, with more features and support bundled in. What annoys me, though, is if the vendor puts in anti-features. In the open source world such anti-features don't exist, since they can easily be removed. With proprietary software you don't have that option. You are at the mercy of the code provided by a corporation who is interested in its own bottom line, not you, the user. One of the key reasons for not running proprietary software, and definitely not a proprietary operating system.

So, why is this feature here? How does this help Microsoft's bottom line?

The Starter edition is aimed at the netbook market. As some have reported, Windows 7 is light-weight enough to actually run on those machines. But the price point of netbooks is so low that vendors cannot pay a lot for software license fees. That is one of the reason why initially we saw a lot of netbooks based on GNU/Linux. No problem with license costs there. Microsoft noticed that with the increasing popularity of netbooks Linux suddenly managed to enter the mainstream market. They couldn't allow this to happen, since obviously they have no interest in users being exposed to any alternatives to Microsoft Windows and applications.

To counter this, Microsoft started to provide Windows XP really, really cheap to netbook manufacturers. Depending on how you calculate it, you get the impression that they either didn't charge anything or just a couple of dollars, just to ensure that it could stop the spread of Linux in that market segment.

Now we get Windows 7 Starter. Artificially limited to three apps. My guess is that it is going to be incredibly cheap, so that netbook vendors can easily put it on their boxes without noticeably increasing the price. Thus, no need to put Linux there. Good for Microsoft. After a while, users will notice that this three-app limit is actually quite annoying. They will then want to upgrade, and maybe - if they are lucky - they get a discount from Microsoft, maybe they have to pay full price. Why not offer Home Premium or Home Basic to the netbook vendors at the same low price as Starter? Because then they would have to discount these higher-margin versions, which Microsoft surely doesn't want to do. It reduces the perceived 'value' of those versions and makes it tougher for Microsoft to demand higher license fees from other OEMs.

So, Microsoft will be able to limit the spread of Linux (most important for them) and will still get some license money out of those customers who later decide to upgrade their netbook OS.

Microsoft 2, consumer 0.

Please note that even on low-powered netbooks there is absolutely no reason to limit the number of apps to three. On our Asus EEE PC 701 (with Linux) we often have more than three apps open at the same time. Any normal OS can do paging as necessary, and since some apps use more memory than others, a hard limit of three is completely rediculous from a technical standpoint. Let the OS and the user find their own limits, based on the hardware and the mix of apps they are running. So, the only explanation I can think of for the three-apps limit is as outlined above.

Would any Microsoft apologists care to offer another explanation?

Other related posts:
Half of Australians think it's OK to pirate Microsoft software
Vista: Microsoft's biggest failure yet?
How Microsoft wins against GNU/Linux in schools

Comment by foo, on 5-Feb-2009 09:00

"I don't have a problem with software being sold in different editions, with more features and support bundled in. What annoys me, though, is if the vendor puts in anti-features."

Keep in mind that Windows 7 will be an anti-feature OS by itself.

How come?

Every Windows 7 DVD will contain all the operating system versions -- from Starter to Ultimate. People will be able to upgrade if they pay more.

The features are there, but they are locked.

Author's note by foobar, on 5-Feb-2009 09:11

@foo: True. Seen that way, any license manager is an anti-feature.

Comment by eduardo, on 5-Feb-2009 16:23

So the choice for netbooks will be a full-featured version of Ubuntu, or pay $30 more and get a very crippled version of Windows 7?

On netbooks Linux today is doing %30 against XP. Looks like with Windows 7 its market share is going to go up.

Oh, and by the way, does anybody know if Microsoft going to port anything to the $200 ARM netbooks that are coming out later this year?

Comment by Dratsab, on 5-Feb-2009 21:01

Actually, for me a number of standard Microsoft features have been made into anti-features.  I've been using MS products since DOS 3.1 but with the release of Office 2007 I've started to despise the product because of what must be one of the most awful and unfriendly "features" ever invented - the ribbon bar.

Not only do I have to spend time looking for things which are now tucked away in totally non-intuitive locations, I can't customise the ribbons.  Don't get me wrong, apart from it's super slowness in booting up (I run a fast dual laptop with 4gb ram) I like Vista - I've never had a single problem with it.

But simple things in Windows 7 are driving me spare.  The new flavour of Windows Explorer sucks like you wouldn't believe.  I really hate how double-clicking a folder makes the whole pane scroll so the folder I've double-clicked on ends up at the bottom of the screen and I can't see the sub-folders.  I double-clicked the folders because I want to see the others - don't hide them from me.

Where's the email client???

Guess I'm going to have to download one.  And you know what - it won't be Microsoft.  They didn't provide one, forcing me to have to do a download.  Therefore they miss out.

I love the way Windows 7 boots up and runs at a million miles an hour...but I hate the way it can't do basic things in a sensible manner.  I'm not the kind of person who is impressed by flash.  I'm impressed the ability to get the basics right and do so on a consistent basis - a philosophy I apply to people as well as machinery and software.  Windows 7 is not doing this particularly well.

On top of that, the Office ribbon which I loath so much has been added to all the applications.  I'm going to persevere with Windows 7 for a while, but right now I'm thinking along these lines - since I'm dual booting Vista/Windows 7, I'll end up simply deleting Windows 7 and I'll put Ubuntu or some other Linux OS on the other partition and have a good play with - along with open office.

microsoft - you're driving me away.  I regard myself as an average person, so I have a feeling there's probably thousands (at least) of others out there who are thinkinag along exactly the same lines...

Comment by foo, on 8-Feb-2009 10:24

@Dratsab: You're not the only one to hate the ribbon:

Fortunatelly it seems possible to turn it off:

Although I found it much cheaper and easier to download :)

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New Zealand

  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
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