No Room for Windows 7 on Minis
The rise of netbooks challenges Microsoft and other companies whose high-end operating systems may not run on the portable machines.
The popularity of netbooks, expected to increase during the global recession, has caught many high-tech companies off guard, including Microsoft.
By the end of 2008, nine of the top 10 PC makers had entered the once-idling netbook market, pushing shipments up 160 percent in the third quarter year over year, according to NPD Group Inc.'s DisplaySearch. The market researcher estimates 14 million mini-note PCs shipped in 2008, compared to 1 million in 2007.
Most netbooks today are powered by Intel's Atom 1.6GHz processors, with standard specs of 10-inch or smaller screens and 1GB DDR2 SDRAM. Acer Co. Ltd., Asustek Computer Inc., Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sony Corp., among others, typically load their lightweight (2.x lbs), $300 to $600 machines with Linux or Windows XP Home Edition, outside of a few models that run Windows Vista Business Edition. As more chipmakers get into the low-end portables market, analysts expect the Intel-driven specs for netbooks to broaden, but Vista still faces huge challenges on these machines.
"Windows 7 requirements are not going to be any less than Vista was," says Rob Sanfilippo, lead analyst of development platforms at Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft. "I don't think it's going to make sense right away to run Windows 7 on netbooks. If you want your apps to be good citizens on netbooks, you need to think about what Windows XP supports."
Although Windows 7 is built on Vista, Microsoft contends that it will start faster and offer better power management to help prolong battery usage. Many developers-if they didn't blink-witnessed Microsoft Senior Vice President Steven Sinofsky, head of the Windows 7 effort, demo the next OS running on an unidentified netbook during the keynote at Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2008 last October.
Despite Microsoft's informal discussions about "MinWin," a stripped-down Windows core (100 files versus 5,000 files in Vista) this technology is not apparent in the Windows 7 beta. Unless Microsoft comes out with a netbook version of Windows 7, the resources and licensing costs of the OS make it unlikely for mini-note PCs in their current form factors.
Headed for the Clouds
The sudden appeal of netbooks, forecasted by DisplaySearch to represent 16 percent of the global notebook market by 2010, throws new challenges into app development. Steps below the desktop and laptop, developers will have to wrestle with whether to build apps that can run with mini-note PCs' hardware and software limitations. Most netbooks offer 8.9-inch screens at WSVGA 1024x600-a lower resolution than today's 1024x768. Netbooks can support Web browsing, Internet streaming, Web cams and office applications such as word processing easily, but many of these systems are not yet engineered to adequately display video and high-end graphics.
"My personal advice is for developers to start learning Web development and learning to harness cloud computing and Software as a Service," says developer Stephen Chapman, who reviewed the Windows 7 beta for Redmond Developer News and authors the UX Evangelist blog. "It would help to perhaps overcome limitations of, say, where you couldn't code an application to use DirectX [DX], you could harness something like Silverlight through a Web app. If a netbook does have the capacity for DX9, then perhaps WARP 10 in Windows 7 will be a way for a developer to achieve DX10 graphics without DX10 hardware-but then it's a matter of how powerful of a processor any given netbook may have."
Don Burnett, a Microsoft MVP and interactive developer and designer, tackled the subject of developing rich Internet apps for UMPCs and mini-note PCs in a recent blog, pointing to functionality in Expression Blend that supports building scalable, resolution-independent Windows Presentation Foundation and Silverlight apps. According to Burnett, developers can effectively run their work environments, Visual Studio Express and Expression Studio on mini-note PCs.
Directions on Microsoft's Sanfilippo says netbooks can't be ignored. "They're here to stay and they're going to get bigger in the next few years because they make a lot of sense," he asserts. "Given the economy, giving your workforce a $300 or $400 device rather than a $2,000 device certainly makes a lot of sense, because you're probably going to get 80 percent of the productivity out of a netbook as you would out of a $2,000 or at least a $1,000 notebook."
For that reason, ISVs and enterprise developers need to start thinking in terms of, "What do we have to do to make existing apps make sense on a netbook?" These considerations range from downsizing the UI and supporting graphics resolutions that are a little bit lower, to thinking about what kind of hard drive space you're going to have locally and what you might move to the server, or even looking at cloud computing solutions that would make more sense when mated with a netbook, Sanfilippo advises.
Developers also need to keep an eye on how much of their focus is on Windows 7 apps for desktops or notebooks versus app compatibility with an OS that will work with netbooks. "You don't want to bet everything on Windows 7 unless Microsoft comes out and says, 'This is going to be on netbooks too,''' Sanfilippo says.
Meanwhile, Microsoft's headaches are mounting in the low-cost portables market. At CES last month, several vendors showcased technology that could make its way into even lower-cost netbook platforms: Qualcomm Inc. is running Google Inc.'s Android Mobile OS on its Snapdragon chipsets. Freescale Semiconductor is demonstrating ARM processors, expected to power ASUS netbooks running Linux at price points as low as $199. And graphics powerhouse nVidia Corp. is demonstrating its Ion platform, announced in December, which combines its GeForce 9400M GPU with Intel Corp.'s Atom processor.
Kathleen Richards is the editor of RedDevNews.com and executive editor of Visual Studio Magazine.