Windows 7 Netbook edition?

Yes you read the heading correctly – Windows 7 is headed for netbooks. Microsoft’s post-Vista overhaul of the OS aims to ensure that Windows 7 can run just as well on netbooks with their limited processing power and storage as on fire-breathing desktop PCs.

Windows chief Steven Sinofsky drive the message home with his on-stage demo at last week’s PDC conference in Los Angeles of Windows 7 running on a debranded Lenovo IdeaPad S10 – a typical netbook system build on the common foundation of an Atom N270 processor and 1 GB of RAM although Sinofsky later revealed his had been bumped up to 1.5GB.

Sinofsky claimed the demo netbook still had about half its memory after booting Windows 7 which isn’t too bad for a pre-beta build of an OS derived from Vista and that it ran pretty well.

“We’re pretty excited about the work that we’ve done on performance and I’m pretty excited about this class of machine and the work that we can do to deliver Windows 7 on those machines” Sinofsky said.

Laptop magazine writer Joanna Stern put this to the test by installing the same Windows 7 build (here’s how to get your own copy of the Windows 7 pre-beta by the way)  onto an Asus Eee PC 1000H powered by the same 1.6GHz Atom processor with 1GB of RAM. Stern says that indeed Windows 7 on its own claimed just 485MB of RAM as well as booting in slightly less time than it took Windows XP on the same machine.

Windows 7 chief Steven Sinofsky who will be played in the forthcoming epic ‘Microsoft: The Movie’ by Kevin Spacey

None the less Sinofsky doesn’t feel that Vista or its performance is the reason for XP’s netbook dominance. He blames the limited amount of space on solid state drives favoured by some netbook vendors.

“The key thing that really drove the XP installation where the very first ones of these netbooks tried to have only flash drives” Sinofsky says. “The reality is that for better or worse Vista’s disk footprint wasn’t going to fit on 8GB of flash. And the reason for that is not anything to do with performance or bloat or anything. We do a lot of really customer focused things like we have a gigabyte and a half of printer drivers. So you might not want them but boy they’re really useful when you need them. We erred on the side of consuming disk space with Vista. What drove the XP desire was to fit on these very small solid state footprints”.

(We’ll have to agree to disagree on that last one Steve. While Vista has a larger footprint than XP there’s simply no room for argument that a straight out install of XP isn’t faster more stable and less out-and-out annoying than Vista. XP is also more than good enough for tasks such as surfing the Web doing email and running the sort of undemanding applications you’d load onto a netbook.)

Netbook makers have largely shunned Vista for the tried-and-proven Windows XP leading Microsoft to hobble XP-based netbooks with artificial restrictions such as a maximum 1GB of RAM (although buyers can upgrade to the full 2GB supported by the Atom chipset) a 1.6GHz processor and 160GB hard drive – enough for the device’s intended lightweight purpose but not sufficient to threaten sales of fully-featured vista laptops.

Even so every XP licence which Microsoft sells to a netbook manufacturer delivers less cash into Microsoft coffers compared to a Vista licence. And with netbook sales set to soar as the segment becomes one of the industry’s few real growth categories at the same time as revenue from Microsoft’s Windows franchise inched up a mere 2% in the most recent quarter this is cash which Microsoft can’t afford to lose.

So part of Windows 7’s job is to reclaim the netbook market from XP. This may even extend to Microsoft creating a separate Windows 7 Netbook Edition for OEMs in which the operating system is stripped back and streamlined for netbooks.

vLite is the ideal tool for cutting Vista down to suit a netbook’s modest horsepower memory and storage space

The process would remove everything that a desktop  PC needs but a netbook doesn’t and that’s plenty. Netbook enthusiasts already use tols such as vLite (sibling to the popular nLite for XP) to customise Vista by removing components as well as services that slow boot time and soak up precious memory. The result of this ‘laptop liposuction’ makes Vista substantially faster in every respect as well as recovering limited disk space. We’re wondering how long it’ll take before something that might be called ‘7lite’ appears…