Rant about past, Intel Atom, MS Windows Vista & 7, Linux – and what does this all have to do with netbooks?

I guess my ADHD took the best of me when I wrote the following rant (originally as comment to an article, shamed to admit) after I came upon a 4 year old article:

Intel: MeeGo exists because Microsoft let us down

Looking back at this 4 years later is amusing… Atom was pretty much something Intel had no choice but to go with – unless they wanted to lose a piece of personal computer pie. Netbooks & Ultra-mobile PC’s were on their way and a low power/heat CPU was necessary to do if Intel wanted their x86-line CPU’s on them.
Some seem to think that Intel was causing MS extra work – and that’s just bull. Be there no Atom MS would have had to compete with mini-laptop OS’s under a different architecture altogether – most likely ARM.
Now, porting an OS, even a huge mess tightly tied to CPU (Windows runs some crazy stuff in kernel space – ring 0 – to make it faster, such as parts of font system [!?] and, if installed&used, parts of their database server, etc.), is something definitely in grasp of MS – it’s not even the first non-x86 port among Windows NT familyline… No doubt they could’ve and would’ve ported their next version (why you don’t see vista on netbooks explained below) of windows to ARM CPU’s, but then what? Linux already compiled and ran fine on ARM, and as for the 3rd party software – well, anything not hardware specific compiles just as well on one as on another system, and most of the software people run on Linux is F/OSS, their source code is not only available but often even adjusted between distros and they are all available from software repositories of your distro, and like Windows Update installs OS updates, in Linux all software you have installed from the repositories get’s updated the same way the OS does.
What’s the problem then, with Windows 7 for ARM? Well, the 3rd party software – certainly the major software houses would have started targetting whatever OS and CPU would have gained flight, but even if Photoshop and other major programs would get ARM port quickly, if the company saw any market for their software on these lower spec systems, netbooks really aren’t (commonly) used for demanding work – it’s web browsing, light software, lot’s of free (as in beer – both proprietary and FOSS) and/or cheap software… games like those from PopCap Games.
And everyone has their own favorite programs, with little differences with everyone else – and many of them are little, if at all supported.
Thing is, Win7 for ARM would lose the biggest competitive benefit over Linux: being able to run software written, compiled and released for Windows – for x86 architecture.
Then with no software available for it at first the first likes of Asus EeePC’s debut would ship with Linux distributions, with maybe alternative of ARM port of Windows, but it would be even worse than when Asus sold their first EeePC’s with Linux – here in Finland, right in the beginning, there were actually more Linux EeePC’s on the shop shelves (first EeePC was so meek in power, memory and storage that XP didn’t really perform that well on it) – as without 3rd party software available, unlike with EeePC+XP, both manufacturers and shops would had realized that customers would be very unhappy with ARMWin7 compared to Linux, which easily provides system to look for different types of software, install it for free, and even though most of it would be different than what they’ve used to, at least it would be available.
Then MS would have to probably include a QEmu like system that would run x86 software on ARM – while instead of full x86 emulation it would use runtime translation of x86 machine instructions to ARM instructions, such solution would still be hopelessly slow on machine already with much lower than average performance.
While it’s percentage on “desktop” (and I include laptops, but not smartbooks, tablets nor other mobile devices in that) is small, the biggest fear for MS on their Windows for PC’s market is that Linux will gain more foothold – and not without reason, as within other markets from mobile devices, through servers, up to supercomputers Windows has lost, and mostly for Linux. There’s MacOS X, it has bigger market share on “desktop” than Linux, but there’s no fear of it suddenly destroying MS’s greatest monopoly success in sight. And with the release of bloated Vista and the surprising explosion of low-end mini-laptops, something like that was possibly close – and MS acted accordingly.

MS wasn’t expecting they would have to compete on systems that have lower specs than average PC’s at the time they released the humongous resource hog that was Vista – Indeed at first their only solution to offer for netbook manufacturers was Windows XP. Kinda lucky that XP was also given some extra time as only option they had for angered people who had bought a PC pre-installed with Vista :D
Still, for new systems, amazingly demanding as they were, it wasn’t the huge system requirements that angered most people – they just don’t know how smoothly things should run on their systems and perceive the new system running as well as the old did when they got it. The primary way MS pushes their new OS’s down customers throats is pre-installed Windows with OEM license (oh they like that, you pay them for the OS as part of the machines price but only get a license tied to that very machine), so huge requirements were no problem, in fact manufacturers were probably in bed with MS so they could push new more powerful hardware down users throats – and Vista was a huge bump in system requirements all by itself. That was crazy of course, and someone like me who knows how smoothly a fully capable but lightweight Linux setup can run rings around WinXP or Win7 – which for Windows users are “light” OS’s – while Vista was hogging resources, the machine ran slower, had trouble remembering half it used to and apparently had lost most space in storage closet for… Vista labeled items that didn’t do anything. What did it do then, surely it must have had something new to justify this? Well, no – already before it was released I could have set up Linux to do all new stuff (well, translated into linux system – so no new DirectX, we use OpenGL – and Compiz/Beryl wiped the floor with Aero, with lesser system requirements).
PROOF THAT VISTA WAS ARTIFICIALLY BLOATED lies in the remarkable stuff MS did after realizing that Vista was failure and though on new systems updates could fix it, thank god there was no way Vista would run on netbooks at the time – Linux then again ran better than XP on them, and as the uses of the first very low-spec netbooks were different enough that people weren’t shunned that much by sight of Linux. Like with tablets and phones we can see, the fear of difference (from windows in this case) only goes so far… when you don’t expect a familiar OS, suddenly you accept an unfamiliar just fine.

MS put all their work on Windows into rewriting what would be Windows 7, not only so that on machines “designed for Vista” the users, who were downgrading from Vista to XP in masses, were now praising 7 to be the best Windows ever, but also they rewrote it to run on lower specs so that it would run on those netbooks as well as WinXP but provide better user experience, stability, etc. – and when Atom got dual core, Win7 did support it and on my Asus EeePC and Acer Aspire One, both less than 2 years old, it probably not only runs as well but actually faster than WinXP would. It’s still not as fast as Linux (I can run DeusEx – old, I know – on Linux with wine fine on them while under Win7 it gets uncomfortably choppy at places), but because of their market share, vendor support and reputation they don’t need to be technically superior – they only need to be good enough that people don’t complain to keep most users from even thinking about options. Just like with Win9x/Win2k vs. OS/2 WARP in late 90’s – while technically superior, MS had to be only good enough, and ditching 9x-line after WinME fiasco they gave final blow to OS/2 with WinXP (not killing it, but OS/2, or eCommerstation, remained a minor OS since that).

Think how long it took MS to write “Longhorn” – I mean, Vista. How does one explain that? And still it was so flawed when released (even compared to itself after latest Service Pack(s?)), how come?

It’s simple: they were not in a hurry. Nothing was threatening them on end-user PC’s, not before netbooks. It’s the same with IE – they had large enough share and customers (business) locked into IE 6. Insecure, unstable, heck it even lacked tabs (which I used around 2000 in Opera), but only after FireFox and Chrome ate too much into their share of browser market they started to work on it – IE 7 was huge improvement, but still so far behind that since then they’ve released new IE’s at pace last seen a decade or more ago ;) ).

So it’s really stupid to think it was Intel holding MS back. Looking back I’m sure you are thankful to Intel for going forward with Atom regardless of MS – after all, that is the no. uno reason why MS had to stop slacking, start doing work fast and start doing work with good quality (in MS scale) which resulted to OS that even I, who have hated using Windows at all since 2002 when I tried Linux and learned how computers should work, say that Windows 7 is not only the best Windows OS ever, but it’s actually not annoying to use for small times, provided it’s not my computer ;)

Without MS being forced to adapt their OS to run on really low-end computers in comparison to requirements of Vista there’s no reason why MS Windows wouldn’t still be artificially consuming insane amounts of memory and cpu resources that can now be used for actual applications, which are supposed to be the ones you upgrade your machine for when they grow too demanding – your OS should not be reason for that.

Personally I’d probably liked it better if there were no Atom and netbooks were running ARM as CPU and Linux as OS – thus introducing Linux to huge number of people who would then be able to actually consider Linux as alternative for their x86 PC’s as well, based on actual experience and considerations of if it can run all the software one would need, instead of ignoring the option because different sounds like difficult and at least their current OS runs whatever they currently use. But that’s not realistic. A company like Intel is not so stupid that they would ignore the market to let a software company hold them back, not when MS really has no power over Intel – when Intel moves to new direction with x86, MS follows. They have to.

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