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Mailbag: Microsoft in the Third World

As promised, here are more of your thoughts on Microsoft's low-end XP computers for Third World countries:

I have to respectfully disagree with your assertion that the OEM requirements for XP on a low-cost machine equate a third-rate technology score for the target countries. A machine packing a punch of 1GHz processing power, 1GB RAM, 80GB hard drive and running Windows XP is a more-than-capable machine for almost all desktop tasks the "average" user needs to get by. How does that make it third-rate? Unless you're a gamer or have some other requirements that demand a stalwart machine, a faster processor, more RAM and more hard disk space are merely non-needed extras.

If I read the gist of the target areas correctly, the idea is that low-cost machines can reach developing countries to better get them into the current times. These machines would really be targeted for beginner and novice computer users (I used "average" up above). What kind of stuff does a beginner or novice do on a computer that these low-cost XP machines won't be able to do? I know MySpace and YouTube work just fine. Where they will be limited is their actual Internet connection and speed, not the processing power.

If I recall correctly, IBM was trying to do the same with mainframe sales in the late '60s and early '70s. IBM was only allowing older mainframes (that had just come off lease) to be sold to India. India wanted to buy the latest powerful mainframes but was rebuffed. India complained about this treatment, to no avail, and so banned the sale of IBM products in India for 20 years.

The required max specs will allow XP to run OK on these machines. Most importantly (to MS), low-end XP "starter systems" make the Microsoft brand imprint for future sales of any MS product, in the brain cells of potentially decamillions of future consumers and workers. That says it all.

This is not about what's fair. It's about Microsoft competing with Linux in emerging markets. Though technically Vista-capable, these LCPC specifications are robust enough for XP as well as for Linux -- though XP Home is somewhat crippled for anyone but users with minimal needs. As for these LCPCs being "too lame," that's up to the buyers of these systems to determine. A lame computer is better than no computer at all. From what we've seen so far, interest in these $200 systems (a la OLPC) has been lukewarm at best -- and no one is telling Third World governments that they cannot buy more robust Vista systems. Or that they cannot downgrade those systems to XP Pro themselves. Further, you cannot tell me that for the right quantity, Microsoft wouldn't permit an OEM to make a deal with a Third World government for XP Pro on any box they sell at any price point.

The point is, it makes no sense for anyone with a Vista Premium-ready system not to run Vista. It's in the user's best interest, it's in the OEM's best interest and it's in Microsoft's best interest. Microsoft must also look out for its OEMs, who cannot make any money on LCPCs except in very large quantities. For OEMs, $500 is pretty much the lowest they can afford to sell a single PC. By prohibiting their OEMs form selling XP, they are really protecting their OEMs by limiting their support costs to a single platform. Keep in mind that there is also a Vista Starter Edition tailored to these LCPC specifications. Keeping XP Home around for these Vista-capable LCPC devices is no more than Microsoft offering a bone to XP zealots to keep them busy.

It looks like those same folks who control Microsoft absolutely loved the 1975 cult movie "Rollerball." James Caan is XP, if you know what I mean. As far as fairness goes, the fact is, the Third World is third-rate for a reason. They can't cut it for economic, political or infrastructure reasons. At least they won't have Vista shoved down their throats unless they actually want it.

We can all say it would be nice if Microsoft would let us have what we want, but the simple fact of the matter is you (and I) don't matter -- not to Microsoft. Soon, I will eliminate having a computer at home. No more viruses, no more unsolicited e-mail, no more "you have to buy our new stuff or else what you have won't work anymore" and, finally, much more money in my pocket and not theirs.
-Tired of the Game

Microsoft's push to Vista is the best reason why Microsoft should have been broken up years ago. Many of us use regulated software that cannot run on Vista and the inability to obtain new PCs with XP having any power is going to cripple many critical operations, including many in health care.

I am not a proponent of legislation to regulate industries, but in this case, Congress needs to mandate that Microsoft continue to produce and distribute XP with no strings attached. Then the mistake that was made in not breaking up Microsoft needs to be undone. Regulation only occurs when there is abuse of a dominant condition. There is no question that Microsoft has the ability to adversely affect the public good.

Thoughts? Comments? Let us have 'em! Leave a comment below or send an e-mail to [email protected].

Posted by Doug Barney on May 20, 2008