Why Do All Netbooks Have The Same Specs? Microsoft and ULCPC

This post started as a comment over on jkontherun, where James posted a great hands on report of the new HP Mini Note 1000 netbook. It looks really, really nice – as soon as the 6-cell battery version becomes available, this will probably be the one I buy for my family (I have been a fan of and recommending the Eee PC 1000H, which is still a great netbook – a half dozen people I know have bought one on my recommendation, and they love them).

BTW, I’m posting this on my own blog, instead of on the Intel Software Network blog (where I’ve been writing an ongoing series of posts on “The World of Netbooks”) because it could be seen as a little controversial, and it represents my opinion, and my opinion only, with a healthy dash of speculation. I don’t have any inside knowledge of this topic – all I know is from what I’ve read on the web.

Have you ever wondered why pretty much all the netbooks on the market have essentially the same specifications? A 9 or 10 inch LCD screen at 1024×600, 1GB RAM, the Intel Atom processor, etc. I think I know. It has to do with Microsoft, and something called ULCPC – Ultra Low Cost PC.

Microsoft doesn’t want to keep selling Windows XP. They want to kill it, and sell Vista. Makes business sense. But, these little netbooks don’t meet the minimum specs for Vista.

So, MS grudgingly decided to keep selling an “ULCPC” or “ULPC” edition of XP, but only for systems that don’t exceed the specs they set: no larger than 10″ screen, no more than 1GB RAM, etc. If OEMs make netbooks with beefier specs, MS won’t let them sell them with XP.

I suspect that the 1024×600 screen resolution limit is part of those restrictions, but I can’t find anything documenting that as fact. And I’m seeing contradictions about the limits. For instance, the ULCPC specification states a CPU no faster than 1GHz, but exceptions are made for the 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU we see is almost all netbooks. Same for the 80GB hard drive limitation – many netbooks have 160GB drives. I imagine that the complete ULCPC specs are known only to Microsoft and netbook OEMs. Someone correct me if I’m wrong. I REALLY had hoped that HP would buck the trend, since the old Mini Note 2133 has a 1280×768 screen, but alas, no.

One could argue that Microsoft is doing something “evil” here, or that they’re only practicing good business. Personally, I think they were blindsided by demand for netbooks, and had to scramble to get some strategy in place that would keep them from being shut out of the game altogether. But it’s a frustrating, arbitrary limitation, and one of the big reasons fanboys like me hold out hope that Apple will make a netbook. I mean, I actually like using XP on my netbook, but I’d like better specs in a netbook than what we’re ever going to see as long as MS gets to dictate their terms. Sure, Linux is an alternative, and a good one, but all the programs I love to use run on either Windows XP or Mac OS X. And if Uncle Bill won’t give me what I want, I can only hope that Uncle Steve will. 🙂

Oh, and raise your hand if you think Windows 7 is going to run better than XP on netbooks? That’s what I thought… 😉