Ulanoff: Microsoft Should Use Windows XP to Save Vista

Recently, there have been many reports about Microsoft extending the life of Windows XP — yet again — in order to support the new ultra-low-cost laptops.

What I find strange is that everyone seems to have forgotten about Vista Home Basic, the version of Microsoft Windows Vista designed for low-cost, low-powered PCs.

Frequent readers of my columns know that I have no love for this neutered version of the OS. But if Microsoft is going to try and own the growing super-low-cost, entry-level and Third-World PC markets, I would think it would want its newest product out there as opposed to something that it's supposed to put through the end-of-life cycle in the next couple of years.

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One argument in favor of XP is that despite Basic's, well, basic qualities, it's still too big for some low-cost, low-end laptops, like the ASUS Eee PC 4G, for example.

This surprised me until I really looked at the Eee PC's specs:

Processor Speed: 900 MHz
RAM: 512 MB
Graphics Card: Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900 GM
Storage Capacity: 4 GB

I then compared these specs with the minimum requirements for both Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition and Vista Home Basic:

Windows XP Home Edition:

Processor Speed: 233-MHz Pentium or faster (300 MHz recommended)
RAM: 64 MB (128 MB recommended)
Storage Capacity: 1.5 GB
Graphics: Super VGA (800 x 600)
CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive

Windows Vista Home Basic:

Processor Speed: 800 MHz
RAM: 512 MB
Storage Capacity: 20 GB (15 GB of available space)
Graphics: Super VGA
CD-ROM drive

At first glance, it's clear that XP Home's requirements are far lower than those of Vista. Upon closer examination, however, I noticed that Vista would fit perfectly on the Eee PC if it weren't for the ungodly amount of hard drive space it requires — 15 to 20 GB.

Now, I've been using Vista for a while. Overall, it doesn't have that many more Microsoft mini apps and features than what I could get on an SP3 version of Microsoft Windows XP Home. So what the heck is Microsoft doing with all those gigabytes of space?

I really don't know, and for me, it's just another example of how Microsoft shoots itself in the foot, creating bloated applications that do way too much for a majority of people who will use just 20 percent (or less) of the available features.

Mobile Analyst Sascha Segan recently told me that Microsoft has a habit of designing for the fastest CPUs instead of making lean OSes (this, he said, is especially true in the mobile space).

This practice has Microsoft stuck, literally, between a rock and a hard place. The company desperately wants to be a part of the starter laptop market, but has neglected to build a new OS that could support it.

In any case, Basic was never intended to really support any sort of needy kids' PC campaign. Instead, it was a way for PC manufacturers to sell people crummy systems and still get to tell consumers that they run the cool, new Microsoft OS.

Microsoft and its partners could not have anticipated the antipathy that greeted Vista and now no one, including the ultra-low-cost laptop manufacturers, wants to run Vista Basic.

I know, I'm forgetting about Windows Vista Starter — the odd-duck version of Vista that's not available in the U.S., Europe, Japan or Australia. It's only "licensed" to run on certain low-powered CPUs.

Sorry, but Starter's minimum requirements aren't wildly different from Basic. It still requires an 800-MHz CPU, 384 MB RAM (not sure where they got that number and, oddly, it can't handle more than a gig of RAM), and, yes, 15 to 20 GB of storage.

If Microsoft is having any success with the "Starter" program, why is it pushing XP Home? I'm guessing Starter has been a non-starter.

So what can Microsoft do? Giving XP a temporary reprieve is a ridiculous stop-gap measure that only serves to make Vista look worse. Another look at the specs for that ASUS system and the requirements for XP and Vista Basic provides the answer.

So here's my proposal:

Pull Vista Basic from the shelves and every original-equipment-manufacturer pipeline. Take XP back into the lab, re-skin it, tweak the security and a couple of other minor things, and then relaunch it as Microsoft Windows Basic.

Doing so will end the ridiculous game Microsoft's playing, the one where it finds another reason to extend XP's life and support every six months.

Instead, it can embrace its best and most beloved OS. I know this means that we'll eventually see Service Pack 4, 5 and beyond.

Eventually, XP will be all the things Vista should've been, but with half the resource requirements.

This is a good thing. OEMs will embrace Windows Basic for entry-level systems, ultra-low-cost manufacturers will latch onto it for the long haul, and Microsoft will finally have a sensible low-end OS strategy. Look out Linux.

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