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XP Starter Edition has ironic Linux twist

Microsoft's decision to push a slimmed down version of XP in developing countries -- but not in North America -- could play into Linux's hand, says one analyst.

Microsoft's demonstration of a Portuguese-language-optimized version of its Windows XP Starter Edition (XPSE) for the Brazilian government this month could have been seen as detrimental to Linux's growth in developing markets.

In [mature] markets, Microsoft seems to follow a digital version of Henry Ford's famous maxim: Customers can have any color they want, as long as it is black.
Charles King
principal analystPund-IT Research

According to Brazil's fourth largest newspaper, Juno de Brasil, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant ran a demo of XPSE and said Microsoft had tentative plans to offer the product to Brazil, having previously launched it in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia and Thailand.

Microsoft said the pitch was aimed at moving XPSE, which is a slimmed down and less expensive version of its XP operating system, into yet another developing market.

But Charles King, principal analyst of Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research, was critical of the move, saying that when Western IT vendors launch such products in developing markets it is often a case of "opportunity meets unintended irony."

Microsoft appears to be using XPSE as both a block against Linux deployment and as a promotional package to spark market interest in its higher-end offerings, King said. When loyal XPSE users move to more enhanced products, they'll most likely stick with other Microsoft products in what some would consider a natural progression, he said.

"We find some irony in Microsoft providing levels of choice to consumers in developing nations that they resolutely withhold from customers in the U.S. and Europe," King said.

The XPSE system got its start in Thailand during the summer of 2003, when Microsoft began distributing the stripped-down Windows and Office XP bundle for about $38 to the government. According to the Microsoft, XPSE helped developing countries enhance IT access for their citizens.

However, many noted that Thailand's interest in low-cost Linux options likely sparked Microsoft's effort. Since then, Microsoft's XPSE promotional efforts appear to follow the growing success of open source applications in significant developing markets in Asia, Eastern Europe, and now South America.

While Microsoft has promoted XPSE in developing markets, where low cost and ease-of-use reign supreme, more mature markets like Europe and the United States have been left without an entry-level Windows product.

"In these markets, Microsoft seems to follow a digital version of Henry Ford's famous maxim: Customers can have any color they want, as long as it is black," King said.

Further criticisms in the Americas and Europe that play to a Linux hand include some users' opinions that the company is a mere provider of complex, expensive "bloatware" that offers more features than most customers will ever use.

Microsoft's tendency to add more features is ongoing and has inspired growing numbers of frustrated customers to consider simpler alternatives, King said.

"It is like the last time I bought an inline phone for my office; the sales guy is telling me I need the new 150 name memory, and I don't even know that many people. My old model had 120 slots, and that was still twice as many as I needed," King said.

To date, Microsoft's sheer weight has allowed it to shrug off complaints about superfluous upgrades, King said. But, if Linux continues to gain market momentum, the analyst said he wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft began offering new choices to long-time customers similar to those currently available only in developing markets.


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Danny J. Wall, a network engineer at HealthFirst Inc., agreed that open source applications tended to have less "bloat" that Microsoft products, and that this leads to fewer headaches in IT departments.

"Microsoft prides itself on the integration they have created with their operating system and their apps, which has given them an unfair advantage over other applications on the Windows platform, even if they are not better products," Wall said. "This integration causes more serious problems; an update to the browser can crash the whole system, or make it extremely unstable. I have had to rebuild many machines because of this problem."

Hall said he can also scale the Linux OS down to just what he needs; so small, in fact, that he can boot from a floppy disc or USB key.

"This flexibility not only provides portability, but security since it is a minimal install," he said.

However, even in light of such testimonials, King said he currently sees no reason to believe Microsoft will offer an XPSE product to a North American audience, because there has not yet been widespread adoption of a Linux-based desktop.

"This is still open to huge opportunity for Linux and I think it's ironic that Microsoft has been willing to provide an entry level package for these countries whose efforts are reflective of that entry level group," King said.

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