After having said for years that it was not interested in offering any such thing, Microsoft has launched XP Lite -- or Windows XP Starter Edition (XPSE) as it's officially called. Available in Asian countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand and a couple of others as-yet unnamed, the cut-down OS is geared toward first-time users. It has no support for more advanced features such as networking, sharing printers across a network or the ability to establish multiple user accounts on a single PC. It does include Internet connectivity, Windows Messenger and digital photography support, as well as security features.

So what's prompted Microsoft to break the habit of a lifetime, not to mention the addiction to feature-bloat, in spite of the fact that, as analyst firm Jupiter Research points out, "Microsoft [has] argued that removing anything from Windows would basically break the operating system."? Essentially, the power of the market is forcing the Redmond giant's hand as, in most areas of the world, the mainstream version of its core OS product is simply too expensive.

The Linux option
If Windows was too pricey, users have until now had three options: to do without altogether, to pirate a copy, or to use an alternative -- which in practice means Linux, which of course is free.

Doing without is not much of an option of course. Pirating a copy was a common method of acquiring previous versions of Windows. Microsoft's response to that was a combination of legal threats and exhortation to do the right thing.

For example, it commissioned market research which purported to show that local economies in the Baltics performed better if users paid full price for their software. This was because, the research showed, of increased tax revenues and spin-off economic activity, the aim being to persuade governments to take the software piracy issue seriously.

In the end though, activation technology has, presumably, largely staunched the flow of pirated copies; no corroborative figures are available.

What's left is the Linux option. Although there are running costs to be fed into the equation, free at the point of purchase feels much better than the equivalent of £130, especially when your monthly income is counted in two or three figures.

Semi-skimmed Windows
So Microsoft had to do something, even it went against the grain although, at the moment, those people aren't Windows buyers anyway. Microsoft will consider that the cut-back nature of the product and the fact that it will only be produced in local languages help to prevent leakage into more developed countries, who are willing -- or rather able -- to pay more for Windows.

More interesting, though more as an academic exercise than anything else, is the fact that users have forced Microsoft to sell them a product that's not as bloated as that which most of us are offered. They've done that by not buying the full-fat product which, I would argue, is not a very likely response on a mass scale in the more developed world. Ask yourself whether you'd want an OS that only allowed you to run three applications concurrently, each with only a maximum of three windows open, and then only at low resolutions, either for yourself or your users. Somehow I think not.

And you have to wonder whether most of the target market will want it either. From a system builder's point of view, it doesn't much matter what the OS is as long as the hardware sells. And if local governments, big IT buyers in developing countries, are persuaded to buy the boxes, it legitimises the system and sucks them into the Microsoft market for applications and add-ons. On the other hand, XPSE's lack of basic functionality seems more likely to deter them.

A trench in the sand
Even though Microsoft has had to draw a clear distinction between pukka versions of Windows XP and XPSE to avoid cannibalisation, the difference is not so much a scratch in the sand as a trench. As analysts at Gartner point out:
• "With XPSE, only three applications can run at any one time. For example, if Yahoo Instant Messenger, Microsoft Instant Messenger and an e-mail client were running, the user couldn't open a Web browser.
• All XPSE users share a single desktop, rather than separate, personalized desktops, which makes some processes more complicated. For example, users of a shared family PC must log in and out of e-mail and chat applications.
• Although XPSE ships with XP Service Pack 2 installed, Microsoft has failed to address security issues, such as providing anti-virus software and distributing patches and security fixes without reliance on slow, expensive connections, as well as materials educating users on security risks."

So XPSE doesn’t look at first blush like a very good advertisement for Windows technology, even at the mooted target price of $30.

The project is a pilot exercise which the company has said that it will emulate in other countries of successful. However, Gartner analysts have concluded that the limited software upgrade path and poor user experience are more likely to increase rather than reduce piracy, and argue that enterprises and end users alike avoid XPSE. Gartner has been wrong in the past but, this time, success may well elude Microsoft.