In a vote of confidence for Windows 7's suitability for use on netbook PCs, Hewlett-Packard says it likely will offer at least three different editions of the upcoming operating system on future models of its Mini netbooks.
That includes the Professional and Home Premium editions, which Microsoft last week said will be the two primary versions of Windows 7, and the low-end Starter edition, which will limit users to running three applications at a time.
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Kyle Thornton, category manager for business notebook PCs at HP, said in an interview late last week that the vendor also has been testing the beta version of Windows 7 Ultimate -- an edition aimed at gamers and PC enthusiasts -- on the Mini netbook line.
Windows 7 is being built on the same code base as Windows Vista, prompting some fears that the new operating system may prove to be too bulky to run well on modestly powered netbooks. But despite such concerns, "we see it running very well on the [Minis], even with Aero turned on," Thornton said, referring to the compute-intensive graphical user interface offered in both Vista and Windows 7.
While Microsoft will focus its marketing of Windows 7 on the Professional edition for corporate users and Home Premium for consumers, it will continue to offer a total of six flavors -- the same as with Vista. That, the company said, is necessary to meet the needs of PC makers as well as users.
As part of last week's announcement, Microsoft confirmed that there will be no special "netbook SKU" of Windows 7. Instead, PC makers will be allowed to install the Starter edition, formerly consigned to developing countries only, on netbooks and other low-end PCs for sale in markets worldwide. Microsoft officials expect, though, that the majority of netbooks will actually ship with Windows 7 Home Premium.
HP is even more ambitious. Besides the three editions of Windows 7 that it plans to support, the vendor hopes that it will be able to continue to pre-install both Windows XP Professional and Vista Business on its business-oriented netbooks even after the new operating system ships, Thornton said. (Vista Business is the product-line equivalent of the planned Windows 7 Professional edition.)
In the Mini 2140 system that it introduced last month, HP offers three operating systems for business users: XP Pro, Vista Business, and Novell's Suse Enterprise Linux. No other netbook maker "supports business operating systems because, frankly, they are not being supported by Intel or Microsoft at all," Thornton claimed. "We went out on a limb to put XP Pro and Vista Business on the 2140 and make sure it runs fine."
HP is the largest notebook PC vendor worldwide on an overall basis. But in the netbook category, it's a distant third behind the top two vendors, Acer and Asustek Computer, according to market-research figures released in December by DisplaySearch.
HP's largest netbook customer, the Fresno Unified School District in California, bought 7,000 of its original 2133 Mini-Note machines last year. But despite "quite a bit of interest from the business sector," HP has yet to make any large corporate sales, Thornton said.
HP is betting that will change with the Mini 2140. Featuring battery life of up to 8 hours, a hard drive with anti-drop data protection capabilities, and a sleek-yet-professional aluminum casing, the 2140 is being explicitly targeted at the Fortune 500.
"We're not peddling some cheap, plastic-y toy," Thornton said. "I believe that we've got the one of the first, if not only, viable business netbooks out there." He added that a number of Fortune 200 companies are already testing the 2140.
However, both Acer and Asus, as Asustek is known, are also bringing out business-friendly netbooks to compete with the 2140. And Thornton conceded that because of the economy, many corporations have slashed the capital-equipment budgets that they normally reserve for PC purchases, among other things.
But Thornton contends that the 2140's relatively low price tag (the machine lists for between $499 and $650), combined with HP's formidable corporate sales force, will result in numerous sales of relatively small quantities to business users who can buy the system without having to tap into capital-equipment funds.
"Everyone is looking for less-costly alternatives," he said. "If a sales vice president wants to get 20 $600 netbooks at a time, that is well within the signature authority of many executives."
Thornton also argued that the 2140 won't necessarily cannibalize sales of HP's bigger and more expensive laptops. "For a salesperson," he said, "a netbook can actually be a good companion to a 15-inch notebook PC."
Computerworld is an InfoWorld affiliate.
This story, "HP netbooks likely will run 3 versions of Windows 7" was originally published by Computerworld.